Gilbert, Bell open Philharmonic’s Bernstein festival with cool brilliance

Thu Oct 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm
Joshua Bell performed Bernstein's "Serenade" with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Joshua Bell performed Bernstein’s “Serenade” with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

“How barren is the Mozart style without Mozart!” the musicologist Eric Blom once wrote. One hopes the New York Philharmonic’s series “Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival”—celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth–won’t be barren without Lenny in person. But Wednesday’s series opener conducted by Alan Gilbert with violinist Joshua Bell offered only a little encouragement.

The orchestra was clearly on its mettle and gave highly polished performances of Bernstein’s Serenade (“after Plato’s Symposium,” with an artful Bell as soloist) and Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) with mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, as well as the U.S. premiere of Boundless (Homage to L.B.), a Bernstein tribute composed last year by the Dutch composer Joey Roukens.

But amid all the near-flawless execution, the tender and passionate spirit of the honoree seemed to appear only rarely, and the modest, seated applause that greeted each performance gave an indication of how “festive” this occasion felt to those present.

The warmest applause of the night was that which greeted Gilbert on his first entrance, a “welcome back” to the popular former Philharmonic music director that he acknowledged with a broad smile and wave.

It was a sign that audiences today are okay with life-size, businesslike maestros like Gilbert running the show, while the outsize personalities of Mahler, Toscanini, and Bernstein recede into myth. It is 27 years since the beloved and much-discussed conductor from Lawrence, Mass. walked among us, and while Bernstein-themed events have occurred periodically at the Philharmonic ever since, one wonders how many more the orchestra has in it.

Which is not to say Bernstein the composer doesn’t continue to make new fans. By his account, composer Roukens, now in his mid-thirties, became one after seeing the film of West Side Story as a child. Like his model, Roukens is unapologetically eclectic in his influences, citing Stravinsky, Mahler, Steve Reich, pop, and jazz among others, “because they are all part of the musical air he breathes,” as his website puts it.

In fact, the new work Boundless—commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as a companion piece to the Serenade, using similar forces of strings, harp, and percussion, and premiered by Gilbert last February in Amsterdam–sounded as proud of its influences, and as unconcerned with integrating them, as the Beatles’ White Album.

In the vigorous first movement, Roukens commemorated his early love affair with West Side Story with pounding bongos and Latin syncopations. Roukens, composer of a previous orchestral piece titled Out of Control, marked this movement “Maniacally,” and called in a program note for “an over-the-top energy, almost as if the music sounds ‘too fast’ at times.”  Wednesday’s performance was certainly extremely fast, but “out of control” did not appear to be in Gilbert’s conducting vocabulary.

In the second movement’s dreamy strings and droplets of harp tone, Roukens evoked the sound world of Mahler’s Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, a signature piece of conductor Bernstein, more explicitly than the composer Bernstein ever dared to do. Sliding between dissonance and a comfort zone of tender harmonies, the movement seemed to view a West Side Story love scene in a distant rear-view mirror.

Brilliantly executed but somewhat directionless on Wednesday, the last movement sounded more fast and nervous than “Propulsive” as marked. The godfather of this music seemed to be more John Adams than Bernstein, at least until the percussion riot at the close took one back from the West Coast to the West Side.

The string sections were enlarged and the percussion somewhat reduced between Roukens’s piece and Bernstein’s Serenade, leaving plenty of acoustical room to savor the subtle inflections of Joshua Bell’s performance. Bell seemed to acknowledge, in an updated way, the sweet tone of earlier-era violinists such as Isaac Stern, for whom this piece was written in 1954.

However, the notion that a violinist’s playing had to reflect “suffering for his art,” once so pervasive it became a cultural cliché, seems to have slipped into history, and with it went some expressive dimensions to Romantically colored mid-century works like this one and John Williams’ Violin Concerto.

Still, there was much to enjoy in the reunion of Gilbert and Bell, who had performed the Serenade with the Philharmonic in 2013, and who grooved together on Wednesday in the first movement’s grace, humor, and occasional Stravinskian strut. They soared in the Allegretto and powered through the central scherzo. (The work’s literary program, about speeches at a banquet by Greek philosophers, doesn’t illuminate the music much and appears to have been added late in the composing process anyway.)

The Adagio fourth movement belonged to Bell, unfurling the long melody with many kinds of sliding portamento and vibrato ranging from bold to none at all. The Dionysian finale came off a little cool, but the orchestra had both the light touch and the big bang when needed, and Bell turned up the heat for the Presto coda.

The “Jeremiah” Symphony, composed before Bernstein’s brilliant, nationally broadcast Philharmonic debut in 1943 and premiered the following year, finds the young composer flexing his muscles in the fervent, brassy American symphonic style of Roy Harris and William Schuman, but with melodic contours and chord spacing quite recognizably his own.

The piece is laid out like Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” with a spectacular scherzo preceding a deeply lamenting final movement. Over it all looms a sense of catastrophe, both for ancient Israel and for the Jews of Europe at the time the piece was composed.

Or should loom. Wednesday’s performance, while superbly delivered, seemed to omit the prophet’s warning from its lively portrait of Jerusalem, and the scherzo’s depiction of a society departing from godly ways—that is, “out of control”—seemed well in bounds instead.

In the closing movement, mezzo-soprano O’Connor’s dark, covered tone was well matched with low woodwinds. Her intoning of the prophet’s grief-stricken portrait of a ruined and friendless Jerusalem came off somewhat matter-of-fact at first, but her sudden fortissimo over the full orchestra and her closing plea for God’s mercy sent shivers. Then the composer chose to end the piece on a rather bogus note of “comfort” (his word), whose anticlimactic effect can’t be blamed on Wednesday’s performers.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.

 


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