Conductor: Alan Gilbert
Rouken: Boundless (Homage to L.B.)
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion
Joshua Bell: Violin
Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah)
Kelley O’Connor: Mezzo-soprano
The endlessly multi-faceted music man – His many hats included composer, conductor, pianist, author, educator, humanitarian, and maybe most importantly, tireless music advocate – Leonard Bernstein would turn 100 years-old on August 25, 2018, which basically means the world has benefited from his presence or legacy in some capacity for almost a century by now. Hence, without wasting any more time, the celebration started on Wednesday night at his former home of the New York Philharmonic, as it should.
For the first performance of their three-week “Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival” series, the orchestra clearly went all out. The program presented two of the composer’s major works, his unofficial violin concerto Serenade and his first symphony Jeremiah, the New York premiere of a contemporary piece written as a homage to him, Joey Rouken’s "Boundless", some serious star power with violinist Joshua Bell and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, and to top it all off, maestro Alan Gilbert.
Who says Alan Gilbert automatically says new works, so true to form, the concert opened with young Dutch composer Joey Rouken’s “Boundless”, a confident mini-symphony that was clearly inspired by Bernstein’s signature mix of classical and pop music, with more than just a hint of rock and jazz as well. The first movement hit the ground running, full of Latin-flavored energy and inhibited exuberance, before things came almost to a halt in the second movement, whose slowly enveloping ethereality was only interrupted by an old-fashioned ring tone... twice. Things shifted back into high gear from the last movement, whose syncopated rhythms made it brazenly fast and brash.
Alan Gilbert, who got the loudest ovation of the evening for just stepping on the stage, and the orchestra, which was clearly as excited as the audience to have him back on the podium, effortlessly picked up right where they had all left off a few months ago, and a grand time was had by all.
I was introduced to Bernstein’s Serenade, and the wonderful Jennifer Koh, back in Washington, DC many years ago and had never had the chance to hear it again until last Wednesday in New York, performed by no less than violinist superstar Joshua Bell. Based on Plato’s Symposium, whose Aristophanes chapter happens to be the first philosophical text I’ve ever read back in high school, Bernstein’s Serenade is an engaging ode to the various aspects of love that keeps the exposé constantly evocative and immensely attractive.
Of course, having Joshua Bell and his famously radiant tone as messenger only made the experience even more memorable. There were many highlights to be enjoyed among the five movements, especially the deeply lyrical and good-naturedly light-hearted first movement, the gorgeous song that is the Adagio, as well as the more substantial last movement, dedicated to Socrates, which featured a lovely dialog between the violin and the principal cello, Carter Brey, and all-out swinging jazzy interludes.
Moving on to more serious matters after intermission, the orchestra delivered a strong reading of Bernstein's Jeremiah symphony, which the composer wrote when he was a mere 24-year old getting his career underway. The fervent “Prophesy” came out winningly with big brassy sounds and vivid colors, the overall spirited “Profanation” did give hints of trouble to come, and the ominously dark under-tones of mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor’s terrific singing impressively contributed to the mournful “Lamentation”.
During the final ovation, Alan Gilbert held up Jeremiah’s score as if to gratefully salute the man of the hour. Up in music legend heavens, Leonard Bernstein had to be smiling.