The Ways of Learning

02.22.05
Jamie Bernstein
The New York Sun

In November 1954 Leonard Bernstein appeared on the television program "Omnibus" standing on a gigantic score of the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven and pointing to the opening four notes with his shoe. Bernstein illustrated his talk at the piano and by having members of the Symphony of the Air play passages while seated at their particular line on the manuscript, with the camera shooting from high in the studio rafters.

CBS was impressed and booked this born communicator to present his series of Young People's Concerts from Carnegie Hall, which remained on the air until 1973. Bernstein discussed sophisticated topics - What is Classical Music? What Does Music Mean? What is Rhythm? - discovering that by not talking down to his youthful audience he could introduce complex concepts. One lecture on Mahler included a performance of the last movement of the Symphony No. 4 - almost unknown at the time - and he beamed as his children sat in rapt attention.

On Saturday afternoon, the Orchestra of St. Luke's presented Bernstein's daughter Jamie, who has made a bit of a cottage industry out of this type of family concert, on his former stage. Ms. Bernstein began with a marvelous deconstruction of the second half of the Symphony No. 4 of Tchaikovsky. Her rather sophisticated topic was the relationship between dynamics and tempo. I couldn't help thinking that many current maestros - Michael Tilson Thomas came readily to mind - could have benefited from her explanation as to which passages to play loud and which soft. Conductor Michael Barrett and St. Luke's played an example of what happens if every musician comes in at a slightly different moment; everyone laughed, but was I the only one thinking of the New York Philharmonic?

The highlight of the afternoon was an exquisite performance of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth. The musicians performed the piece sensitively and with a transparency of sound that confirmed my feeling that this orchestra is severely underrated. The young audience was positively transfixed by this gossamer music-making.

Concertmistress Eriko Sato dazzled in a breakneck performance of the Erixymachus section of Bernstein's "Serenade after Plato's Symposium" and two of the audience members were given the singular honor of conducting the ensemble in Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold," Ms. Bernstein being perspicacious enough not to mention that the visions of the condemned man were engendered by opium.

Those who love "The Firebird" will realize how often it is poorly performed. Using the finale, Ms. Bernstein offered several examples of its instrumental color and deftly conveyed the difficulties of producing such transitory miracles. She also talked about that final crescendo, frequently mishandled by many of the most respected conductors of the last century, but given a spectacular performance by St. Luke's.

I will spare the sermon this time about the paramount value of this type of convocation. Instead I will comment briefly on the deportment department. Firstly, the children gave Ms. Sato a very enthusiastic ovation when she initially emerged from the wings to tune the orchestra, rather than the halfhearted applause that normally accompanies this largely ceremonial act at "real" concerts. Secondly, a small percentage of the children behaved quite badly, talking excitedly among themselves, bobbing up and down in time to the music, performing various interpretive dances in the hallowed aisles and generally exhibiting a fractious disregard for proper concert decorum. It was glorious.