horizontal line

In the 40 years and more since the last of Leonard Bernstein’s 53 Young People’s concerts was broadcast on American television, they have acquired an almost mythical status; an Olympian ideal of how to introduce younger audiences to classical music in a manner that engaged, excited and enthused them in equal measure.

Watched at their height by an audience of ten million in more than 40 countries, the concerts created a television template that has never been matched. It is surprising, then, to realise that Alicia Kopfstein-Penk’s book is the first full-length exploration of a seminal moment in addressing classical music’s eternal conundrum: how best to broaden its appeal and audience.

Led from the front by the iconoclastic Bernstein, the concerts were the combined effort of a small team that, tellingly, remained virtually intact over the course of the 14-year project. Together, they elided ‘high-art’ symphonic repertoire with its ‘low-art’ siblings – rock, pop and jazz – to make classical music seem contemporary and relevant.

Even more remarkable, given the tenor of the times – the concerts began with the threat of the cold war and ended with the trauma of Vietnam – was Bernstein’s willingness to engage with the totems and taboos of a society in constant social and political flux. Intentionally (if, of necessity, obliquely so on occasion) he pursued a wider agenda than the merely pedagogic with typical flair and finesse.

The Bernstein that emerges here is charismatic, complex and consistently sincere; the constant drafting and re-drafting of his self-written commentaries defined by musical insight, political acuity, wide-ranging enthusiasms and a cultural generosity underpinned by an unwavering conviction in classical music’s ability to communicate.

Kopfstein-Penk proves to be a thorough interrogator of both process and product and the personalities involved. This is an invaluable addition to our deeper understanding of the multi-faceted Bernstein.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Classical Music, 2015 - ©Rhinegold Publishing