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Omnibus: Leonard Bernstein
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Hosted by Alastair Cooke, Omnibus was a monumental series, featuring diverse live broadcasts on science, the arts and the humanities. This historic collection includes seven episodes featuring lectures, performances and master classes from the legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Includes: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1954), The World of Jazz (1955), The Art of Conducting (1955), American Musical Comedy (1956), Introduction to Modern Music (1957), The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1957) and What Makes Opera Grand? (1958).
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Bernstein's first appearance on the show was in 1954 with a fascinating half hour on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. In it, Bernstein explores Beethoven's notebooks to discover what changes Beethoven made to his most famous composition before he decided it was ready for prime time. It's really quite interesting to hear an orchestra play what were early drafts of the Fifth.
It's just as interesting to see this young, dark-haired Bernstein, already a star, athletically urging the orchestra on, singing (a good singing voice was one of the few musical gifts the Maestro did not possess), playing the piano and organ, conducting, even sneaking a cigarette now and then. His manner is professorial and enthusiastic, an engaging combination. He seems to genuinely want to share what he loves about music, and although he indulges in a bit of showing off now and then, it never comes off as condescending.
As someone who knows next to nothing about the study of music, I found this set educational, but not always in the way Bernstein intended. I learned a lot from the Beethoven episode, and the shows about Bach and jazz. Sometimes we end up learning more about Bernstein's preferences than anything else. In the show about opera, he contrasts operatic scenes from La Boheme with the same scenes, but done as theater, without music. The intent is clearly to show how much more drama can be wrung out of a scene if everyone is singing, but I found the acted scenes to be quite dramatic and less overwrought.
I was afraid the set would be hard to watch since it's from the early days of TV, but the picture is clear enough and the sound is good enough, not great, but not distractingly bad.
Fun surprises are seeing an as yet unknown Carol Burnett, aged about 22, belting out a song called "Ooh La La" in a powdered Marie Antoinette wig, and Jean Marsh, later to become famous in Upstairs, Downstairs, as Mimi in the non-musical scenes from La Boheme.
I really enjoyed the one on conducting, which I had not seen, since I have not ever really studied the topic.
I would also like to highly recommend the DVD "Bernstein conducts Bernstein", which includes a fabulous documentary, "Teachers and Teaching" featuring the Maestro reminiscing, instructing, playing(so joyously the Ravel piano concerto), as well as beautiful tributes from other musicians. Superb viewing. Can't wait till I get The Young People's Concerts and so much more.
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