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Kultur presents
Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts (1958-1970)

"No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things."
- Leonard Bernstein

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 13, 2004

Stars: Leonard Bernstein
Other Stars: Aaron Copland, William Lewis, Helen Raab, Marni Nixon, Veronica Tyler, Sergiu Luca
Director: Charles S. Dubin, Roger Englander

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 22h:42m:50s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 032031150393
Genre: classical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In the 1950s, the educational possibilities of television were widely heralded. Even though the medium has proven to be an educational black hole in recent years, the opportunities of reaching the public with cultural events, such as symphonic music, were seized by Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Taking the educational aspect seriously, Bernstein championed a long series of educational television programs, the Young People's Concerts, bringing an appreciation of classical music into the home, in a way that would be accessible for youngsters and adults alike. Over a period of fifteen years, he and the Philharmonic produced three or four such concerts per year, on a wide variety of subjects. Although the New York Philharmonic had been performing such concerts for three decades, it was Bernstein's innovation of televising the programs that made the series a household word and created an awareness of classical music throughout the world in a way that has never been rivaled in popularity.

This nine-disc treasury collects 25 of the 53 hour-long episodes of this long running series, leaning more heavily toward the earlier episodes. The inception of the series seems to have a structured lesson plan, first attacking the question of what music means and what defines classical music and American music. Things develop into more complexity and depth as he delves into deeper questions of form, such as the symphony, concerto and the sonata forms. Other idioms are given attention as well, with episodes devoted to folk, jazz and latin music in the concert hall. Four episodes are devoted to particular composers, a somewhat idiosyncratic selection of Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovitch and Jan Sibelius, all of whom still qualified as modern music at the time of the programs. Music theory winds up with the complex topic of modes, with copious examples of Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes, with brief references to others. The last few programs are devoted to examinations of particular works, such as Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, Swan Lake, The Firebird and finally, Beethoven's Fidelio.

Bernstein intersperses musical selections and excerpts with warm discussion of the subject matter. At first he's a bit patronizing, as if the concert were aimed at very young children, giving a somewhat Mr. Rogers feel to the early episodes. Considering the first televised concert occurred only two weeks after becoming music director of the Philharmonic, that's probably not too surprising. This tendency vanishes as the program goes on and Bernstein quickly grows more comfortable with his audience both in the concert hall and across the globe. His choice of musical examples is always acute, frequently deconstructing a piece or a phrase to make a point, using sequences and imitation to develop his themes, forming a parallel to the musical structures themselves. Bernstein's flamboyance probably helped to make him an interesting figure to the countless youngsters introduced to classical music through these shows.

Clearly times have substantially changed culturally; Bernstein is able to assume a certain amount of familiarity with classical chestnuts such as Haydn's Surprise Symphony, which probably will be unfamiliar to any school-age children who haven't been home schooled. But even so the proceedings are generally accessible to musical novices. Despite this accessibility, the discussion always comes from an intriguing perspective, making for fascinating viewing even for those steeped in classical music. The programs are incredibly dense and packed with information; it's difficult to watch more than two or three together without feeling a bit overwhelmed. The programs work much better parceled out with a few days in between, to allow absorption of the concepts and the music, if not a month apart as originally aired. The performances are vivid and comprise enough of the episodes that there is plenty of replay value.

The single-composer programs tend to be a bit heavier on music and a bit lacking in discussion, though Bernstein does a fine job of providing historical and cultural context among the musical insights. Some unannounced guests also pop up, including Aaron Copland guest-conducting his own Third Symphony. Young violinist Sergiu Luva provides a thrilling solo performance of the first movement to Sibelius' violin concerto. The final episode in this set, from 1970, includes a concert performance of selections from Fidelio in celebration of the Beethoven bicentennial in 1970, with explication of the story and skipping over the unlikely romances and getting straight to the good stuff. Even those who dislike the opera will find a lot to like in this presentation.

This epochal series makes for a welcome addition to any DVD library, and hopefully a second volume with the other 28 episodes will be forthcoming before long.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The earlier episodes are in black and white, and appear to be derived from kinescopes. A few color episodes are included on the last discs, and these seem to be from a videotape source. Neither is really good source material for a DVD, but thankfully Kultur doesn't try to make them appear better by adding artificial sharpening. They look quite acceptable for what they are (though occasional dropouts are visible in a few programs). Fine detail is almost nonexistent, but the black-and-white episodes have decent contrast levels for kinescopes, which are notoriously contrasty, with few signs of the typical blown-out whites. The color episodes are fairly subdued but appropriate in appearance. The grade reflects the transfer only and not the admittedly sad source materials.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both the original stereo and a 5.1 remix are included. All episodes have fairly prominent hiss on both audio tracks, and some have a noticeable electronic buzzing in the background. These defects become quite unpleasant at reference levels (or well below reference in the case of the 5.1 track, which is recorded at significantly higher levels). These are best viewed at moderate listening levels. The orchestra sounds surprisingly good for nearly 50 year old recordings, with few examples of shrillness in the strings. Horns and woodwinds generally sound fine, and the timpani has a nice impact.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 217 cues and remote access
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
9 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The set is devoid of extras, but chaptering is quite generous on most episodes, with the musical selections easily reachable thanks to a well-illustrated booklet that sets forth all the chapter stops.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Some of the great moments in educational television are collected here, and Kultur provides a good transfer of some seriously problematic source materials. Alas, no extras, but there's plenty of content to keep one busy for a very long time.


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