Saturday, November 15, 2008

NSO - Stravinsky & Bernstein - 11/13/08

Conductor: Michael Christie
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's Symposium for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion – Jennifer Koh
Stravinsky: Pétrouchka

After doing my bit to encourage the budding musicians of the Millennium Stage, I was ready for the more seasoned sounds of the NSO and, above all, Jennifer Koh. I had heard her for the first time last summer when she joined the BSO for a dynamite interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, and I couldn't wait to hear her again. Friday evening, she was gracing the stage of the Kennedy Center’s concert hall for Bernstein’s Serenade, which the program had sandwiched between two very different pieces by Stravinsky: a short homage to Debussy and the famous Pétrouchka.

As if I hadn’t had enough with Mozart’s horn concerto less than 20 minutes earlier, I had to hear another 10 minutes of wind instruments as the first piece of the evening. Granted, the sonorities of the “symphonies” were occasionally quite catchy and made this one movement an unusual, if not quite riveting, starter.
All this was forgotten, however, as soon as Ms. Koh stepped up and started the Serenade with a strikingly beautiful violin solo, which, quite appropriately, is supposed to be an ode to Eros, the god of love. The Serenade is an interesting and complex work, boasting a pretty high-brown literary background. Indeed, Bernstein used Plato’s Symposium as an inspiration for five separate movements, each representing five different speakers’ views on the universal topic of love, and the result is a very compelling musical meeting of sorts. On Friday, the adagio particularly stood out, partly because it is such an exquisitely simple and lyrical piece, vividly conveying all aspects of love, partly because in the expert hands of Ms. Koh it elegantly rose to heavenly heights. The last movement was also worth-noting because it was kind of fun: the bunch of the by then pretty drunk fellas enjoyed a bit of rowdiness, and the jazzy tunes here and there sure helped liven things up. This mix of classical and popular, one of Bernstein’s signature touches, has now pretty much reached universal approval, and proves once again how much ahead of his time he was. The Serenade quickly became one of his most popular works, and Jennifer Koh’s flawless performance of it made its natural appeal even stronger.
Next to such an intense experience, poor Pétrouchka was not really able to compete. Originally composed as a ballet score, it tells the story of the mischievous Russian folk figure in four tableaux. Although the Vienna Philharmonic originally deemed it schmutzige Musik (“dirty music”) in 1913, it has now become a beloved piece either as the musical accompaniment to the ballet or the puppet show, or as stand-alone work. On Friday, we heard the 1947 version, which Stravinsky wrote later to receive some well-deserved copyrights and which, according to him, was much superior to the original one. Of course. Michael Christie spared no effort and led the orchestra into a spirited performance, but I have to confess that it was hard to concentrate on the poor puppet’s fate with Jennifer Koh's virtuoso notes still happily ringing in my ears.

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