It was the Roaring ’20s and New York Philharmonic leadership was on edge about the future of classical music. Jazz was sweeping the nation, and the city’s demographics were shifting. The Orchestra’s Board of Directors responded to the perceived threat by devising an ambitious plan “to secure … a wider popular audience” by appealing to both “the very large public which exists below Twenty-third Street” (presumably the city’s immigrant population) and young people (the audiences of the future). Their proposed solutions included music appreciation courses, radio broadcasts and recordings, free concerts, and the Young People’s Concerts (YPCs)—a series that marks its 100th anniversary this season (the next concert is on November 18).
In 1924 the creator of those YPCs was Ernest Schelling—a pianist, composer, and conductor with a passion for reaching young people. He respected their intellectual and emotional capacities, and knew that kids needed to see themselves reflected onstage. In 1936, 15-year-old Ruth Young found a role model at a YPC: “As long as I have studied music…I never heard of a woman composer, except perhaps Clara Schumann,” she wrote in response to a work by Mary Howe. “I think it is remarkable that it was composed by a woman.”
Leonard Bernstein—the NY Phil Music Director, 1958–69, who brought unprecedented attention to the series as YPC host—also felt representation was critical. When engaging young players for the solo spotlight, he said that he made “a special effort to look for Black artists,” explaining that “we are dealing with the young, and encouragement is the main thing.” Among those he championed was pianist André Watts, who at age 16 made his Philharmonic debut at a YPC that also featured three other young pianists, all female.
Inclusion alone, though, is not enough, and over the century YPCs have found creative ways—such as multimedia and hands-on activities—to captivate restive listeners. Schelling employed glass lantern slides to project images of composers, instruments, and related subjects such as fairy tales. Throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, kids were invited to draw and write about their concert experiences in notebooks. Many entries demonstrate the power of music, such as this from the World War II era, written by 16-year-old Phyllis Ellen Paull, whose journal comprised letters to “Joe,” a serviceman with whom she had once attended YPCs: “Mozart’s music filled me with the joy I feel on one of these early spring days when the postman brings me a letter from you…It’s things like the Young People’s Concerts that you are fighting for.”
Bernstein joked, sang, and even danced to the music, and he invited audiences to do the same. He expanded the audience exponentially by bringing the series (and his charisma) to the new medium of television, inspiring tens of thousands of young fans. Thomas Wilkins, who is conducting this month’s YPC, frequently talks about how seeing them on television inspired him to be a conductor, though he knows there is a ways to go before they can truly represent the audience at large.
Associate Principal Viola Rebecca Young attended her first Bernstein-led YPC—in person—when she was two years old; she later performed under his direction. She recalls his dynamism, but, she acknowledges, “Incredible as he was, even his presence would not be enough today: kids have phones and a shorter attention span.” Having assumed his mantle as host and co-scriptwriter of a YPC offshoot, the Very Young People’s Concerts (for kids ages three to six), she is adamant about two things: “We must never dumb down the music—it was the great masterpieces that turned me on as a kid—and it has to be fun, so kids want more.” In fact, today’s YPCs combine long-established cornerstones of the repertoire with neglected works and brand-new compositions, many by children enrolled in the New York Philharmonic Very Young Composers Program.
The tried-and-true YPC recipe—comprising two simple ingredients, inclusion and engagement—still works today. Gary A. Padmore, the Philharmonic’s Vice President, Education and Community Engagement, The Sue B. Mercy Chair, says that YPCs must “affirm that kids from all cultural traditions have a right to be part of the concert experience, onstage as well as off.” To that end, today’s YPCs include works by composers from backgrounds not traditionally represented in orchestral programming. Inclusion and engagement, goals of the YPCs for a century, are sure to flourish with the 2026 arrival of Gustavo Dudamel as The Oscar L. Tang and H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang Music and Artistic Director. A product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s youth music program, he is a passionate advocate for expanding music education and the use of new technology and experiential learning.
As President and CEO Gary Ginstling, who’ll be working with Dudamel to forge the YPCs’ future, says: “Throughout his career, Gustavo’s commitment to both music education and to the quality of what orchestras offer young people has led to many dynamic initiatives. The synergy of his vision and the Philharmonic’s commitment to connecting with kids and broadening our audience is sure to set out a new course for how we engage with and inspire new voices and young listeners."