Sunday, July 22, 2018

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People's Concerts: “Quiz Concert: How Musical Are You?” (CBS-TV, aired May 26, 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Turner Classic Movies ran some of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts — I don’t know how many of them they scheduled since, now that I can no longer record shows for later viewing, I don’t keep up with their schedule the way I used to when I could notice that an obscure movie was on at 4 a.m. and set my VCR or DVD recorder to record it (now the only way I could regain the capacity to record shows for later viewing is to pay even more money on an already outrageously high cable bill!), but I turned it on shortly after 8 and caught the tail end of a concert I remembered seeing on its first go-round about modes — the alternative scales used in ancient Greek music. One can generate one of seven modes by starting with any white key on the piano and playing the next seven white-key notes in sequence, but for some reason the only scales that became standard in classical music were the Ionic (major) that begins and ends with C, and the Aeolian (minor) that begins and ends with D. The point of the program was that starting at the end of the 19th century composers like Debussy began exploring some of the other modes, including the Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian, and to demonstrate that Bernstein began and ended his program with performances of “Fêtes,” the second of the three Nocturnes for orchestra Debussy composed and premiered in 1900. Debussy is one of my favorite composers anyway and the spectacle of Bernstein performing this music at the height of his powers as a conductor (when he left the New York Philharmonic in 1969 his talents began to go downhill, and by the time he left Columbia Records for Deutsche Grammophon he had begun the tendency a lot of long-lived conductors get into: their tempi get slower as they age until in their later recordings the music just begins to creep along and one wonders how their singers and musicians, especially the ones who have to breathe through their instruments to make them sound, can sustain these ultra-slow tempi without running out of breath) was welcome.

The shows I got to see complete — in color, which was something of a surprise because when they first aired our family only had black-and-white TV’s — were the December 25, 1967 “Tribute to Vienna in ¾ Time” and the May 26, 1968 episode oddly called “Quiz Concert: How Musical Are You?” In this one Bernstein was challenging his young audience to show how well they understood classical music through a variety of questions — some of them tricks — including asking them to identify the composer (name and nationality), period, style and form of particular pieces of music. I lucked out on the first piece he played; since he announced that he would perform it complete and it was only four minutes long, I immediately guessed it would be the overture from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro — and I was right. That gave me not only the composer’s name but also his nationality (Austrian), the date (the 1780’s) and the style (so-called “Classical” — the fact that “classical” is used for the entire genre of music composed for symphony orchestras, chamber groups or soloists,  usually on piano or violin, while “Classical” — capitalized — is used for a specific period within the entire “classical” continuum, namely the latter half of the 18th century, has confused a lot of people over the years), though Bernstein stumped me when he pointed out that the overture to The Marriage of Figaro is in a quasi-sonata form but without the usual development section in which the themes originally stated in the exposition are changed and varied on before the first section returns as what’s called the recapitulation. Bernstein also did some odd things to the music when he replayed sections of it, sometimes trying to conduct it in three beats when it’s clearly written in two, and the parts I liked were when he inserted a saxophone into Mozart’s reed section (it sounded wrong, but delightfully so, and I’m sure someone somewhere has arranged this piece for a saxophone ensemble) and when he added some jangly percussion instruments into the coda (which, as I joked to Charles — who returned home from work about this time — is how Mozart would have written it if The Marriage of Figaro took place in Turkey, since that sort of percussion spelled “Turkish” to the Viennese audience of the time and Mozart amply used it in the two operas he wrote that do take place in Turkey, The Abduction from the Seraglio and the unfinished Zaïde). Bernstein then played a piece that stumped me completely: it sounded like a 19th century German pastiche of early Romantic style but turned out to be the opening movement of Prokofieff’s “Classical” Symphony. 

Then Bernstein gave the orchestra a rest and sat at a Baldwin piano for some more questions, this time true-or-false ones dealing at least partly with which is or isn’t a major or minor scale (he played one that sounded like standard major but turned out to be the Mixolydian mode), what was or wasn’t a waltz (he fooled me with one excerpt when he played Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” which is a waltz come scritto, but Bernstein had deliberately played it in 2/4 time) and one on which I noticed that he was wrong: after playing a couple of themes that had been used on TV shows or commercials (including the opening theme of the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report news show, which was really the start of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), he played the four-note motif from the 1950’s TV series Dragnet and said it had been written especially for the program. It wasn’t; it was originally part of Miklós Rósza’s score for a 1947 Universal-International prison movie called Brute Force, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Burt Lancaster, and throughout the run of Dragnet Rósza got on-screen credit for the theme even though Walter Schuman wrote the original music for the show. (One interesting bit of evidence of Bernstein’s attempt to establish himself as “cool” to his younger viewers by showing them that he liked the kind of music they did was when one of his excerpts was singing the first two lines of the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” to illustrate that you could write a sad song in a major key.) Then Bernstein played 10 examples of musical devices on the piano and I got all but the first and the last of them — I identified a trill as a tremolo and bitonality as counterpoint (the others were an interval, a chord, an arpeggio, a crescendo, a diminuendo, an octave, a chromatic scale and a glissando) — and for his final piece he brought the orchestra back. This time he played the final movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol and hailed the piece as a successful evocation of a Spanish mood by a non-Spanish composer — an evaluation I don’t agree with: I like the piece but there’s still enough Russian in it I jokingly call it “Sangria and borscht.” What he wanted his quiz audience to do this time was identify the passages in the score in which Rimsky-Korsakov wrote unaccompanied cadenzas for certain instruments, and I got most of them except for the opening, which wasn’t just drums but he wanted you to notice the brass ensembles backed by the drums. Then he replayed the movement, including the parts he’d skipped the first time around, and added at the end that his last question was going to be, “Did you like it?” 

I did, though there are some interesting observations to be made about the Young People’s Concerts after not seeing them in over 50 years. First, it’s astonishing to see an orchestra made up entirely of white men; when we see a symphony concert on PBS these days (the only place you can see a symphony orchestra on American television — as I noted at the start of these remarks, the commercial TV networks were only too glad to give up any obligation to show anything even remotely “cultured” and they supported the creation of PBS largely because it meant they would no longer be expected to — “We don’t need to show symphonies, operas or great plays anymore. PBS can do that!”) there are generally quite a few women and people of color in the orchestral ranks. It’s surprising that just 50 years ago a major and representative American symphony orchestra was all white and all male — and this despite the fact that their conductor was a well-known political liberal with a major personal commitment to supporting civil rights. It’s also fascinating to watch the audience at the concert, which consisted mostly of actual children and teenagers (any older faces in the crowd were almost certainly their parents or family members); some of them looked genuinely interested in it but most of them looked bored and a few of them were nodding off. It’s worth noting that at least back then the tradition of dressing for a symphony concert still obtained: the kids — regardless of their level of interest in the proceedings — were impeccably dressed in ways virtually no one their age ever would be today. The Young People’s Concerts were an important personal milestone for me in that they helped build my love and understanding of classical music, and I’m grateful to them and to Leonard Bernstein for hosting them along with his usual producer/director, Roger Englander (whom I joked got the job over François Français!), for getting and keeping them on the air for over a decade.