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With new kids' concerts, Bernstein's beat goes on

01.28.05
Jamie Bernstein
The Star Tribune

Minnesota Orchestra's Adventures in Music for Families is a model of enlightened self-interest. While the orchestra works to cultivate the next generation of concertgoers, "The Bernstein Beat" should delight adults and children alike.

Inspired by Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, broadcast on CBS from 1958-72, this is a program that has been performed around the world in five languages - and with good reason: It does not condescend to its younger audience, while still having much to engage and challenge its older one.

One of the most familiar and influential names in 20th-century classical music, Bernstein was a triple threat - composer, conductor and educator. Now, Jamie Bernstein Thomas, his daughter, has created a program that celebrates both her father's music and his passion for making it fun.

The theme of the concert is exploring rhythm. Using some of Bernstein's most familiar music (excerpts from "West Side Story") and some of his most obscure (a movement from Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah"), Bernstein Thomas dissects one of music's fundamental elements, making even the trickiest of her father's rhythms comprehensible.

After the orchestra plays a piece, say, an excerpt from Bernstein's "Mass," she takes it apart, the musicians providing musical examples to illustrate her points. With her animated performing style, plus some interactive tricks, she held a student audience on Wednesday morning enthralled for the full hour.

Bernstein Thomas engages with the music emotionally as well as intellectually. In some cases, she sets the compositions in a biographical context, giving the audience something personal to relate to. In other cases, she gives musical cues to listen for. For example, casting the Prologue of "West Side Story" as a contest between the hot Latin rhythms of the Sharks and the cool bebop jazz of the Jets provides the audience with musical hooks to get caught up in.

Conductor Mischa Santora really gets the Minnesota Orchestra to swing, making even the most complicated music transparently accessible and handling the contrasting popular and classical styles idiomatically. It's hard to imagine any audience members not tapping their toes and dancing in their seats (which Jamie Bernstein assures us is perfectly acceptable) to these performances.

Perhaps because of the popular success of his theater works, Bernstein's classical compositions always have been seriously underrated. The highest compliment that can be paid to Jamie Bernstein and the Minnesota Orchestra is that this program inspires a desire to rediscover more of them.