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Omnibus: Leonard Bernstein

(US DVD: 26 Jan 2009)

“A conductor is an eternal student” – Leonard Bernstein


The first release of the Omnibus series from the ‘50s-‘60s focuses on their Leonard Bernstein programs of the ‘50s. In total, there are seven broadcasts included in the set and they showcase Bernstein’s charismatic exuberance for his various subjects. From jazz to the American musical comedy to Bach, Bernstein is knowledgeable and articulate, while also communicating his real love for music in all its forms.


The set includes “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony”, “The World of Jazz”, “The Art of Conducting”, “American Musical Comedy, “Introduction to Modern Music”, “The Music of J.S. Bach”, and “What Makes Opera Grand?”. Beginning with “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” from 1954, the series goes on to make certain assumptions about its audience in terms of a general familiarity with classical music and with some musical terminology. Bernstein never talks down to the audience and his approach is both casual and professional. When breaking down the fifth symphony, he takes several of Beethoven’s drafts and inserts them to give more insight into the creative process. This series is not just about making people like music, but it’s about making people understand why they like music.


While some of the entries in this set may seem dated, such as “Introduction to Modern Music” which focuses on avant garde, atonal, and dissonant music that was hated by many at the time or “The World of Jazz” which seeks to convince the audience that jazz is as valid an art form as any other – something taken for granted today – these programs still manage to educate and entertain despite any outmoded popular thoughts of the time.


The very real attempts to seriously analyze difficult music that could have automatically turned people off is at the heart of the series’ appeal. Some other factors also place the series in a striking time frame. The almost complete absence of African-Americans and women as musicians and singers clearly reveals the limitations of the time.


Despite the passage of 50 years since these programs aired, some are still timely and relevant today, such as “The Art of Conducting”, which sheds light on the almost mysterious skills involved in conducting. Bernstein relates how conducting goes beyond basic technical knowledge, such as keeping time, to an understanding of each and every part of 80-100 piece orchestras. In addition, Bernstein makes it a point to emphasize the importance of placing the music within the cultural context of its time. In other words, understanding the music not only as a musician, but as an “artistic historian” is part of what makes a good conductor great. This program ends with a fascinating glimpse into an orchestral rehearsal and the amount of work and detail involved is staggering.


One of the more engaging topics Bernstein expounded upon was on Bach in “The Music of J.S. Bach”. Bernstein’s personal connection and obvious enthusiasm for the music of Bach comes through in the telling of his own discovery of the composer. By giving some quick background on Bach’s life and the relative obscurity in which he worked, Bernstein offers a more complete portrait of a composer that is taken for granted today as one of the greatest. By showing how Bach’s fusion of harmony and counterpoint were jarring to listeners of his time who were more accustomed to straightforward melody lines, Bach’s music comes alive.


Similarly, Bernstein’s treatment of opera in “What Makes Opera Grand?” opens up a musical form with one of his more animated presentations. He states that the human voice is the greatest instrument there is – quite a statement from such an accomplished musician – and his approach to demystifying opera proves to be very effective. Filmed inside the Metropolitan Opera House, Bernstein has actors act out scenes from Puccini’s La Boheme as a play and then has the singers come out to perform the same scenes to offer the audience a better understanding of the story. 


Omnibus: Leonard Bernstein is a glimpse into a different era of television programming. The sophisticated and cultured presentation showcases musical topics that still hold relevance today.  Bernstein’s role as teacher, performer, and enthusiast is not an easy one to play, yet his love of music is clear throughout all the programs and his genuine exuberance goes a long way in making the music as accessible as it is. 


The only extra feature included in the set is a bonus performance of Handel’s Messiah conducted by Bernstein and it fits in very nicely with the rest of the programs.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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