Dancers struck poses on platforms and stairs, lighting designers projected festive and colorful atmospheres, patrons scarfed complimentary chopped liver and mini latkes, before the jubilant crowd of 20-somethings in little black dresses and tuxedoed high rollers entered Symphony Hall in a festive roar. Such a din obtained for the opening-night festivities last night, that, except for piercing glances from a trumpet and rolling thunder from the tympani, the rest of the orchestra warmup up was drowned out.
Once the All-Bernstein Program got going, it suitably heralded one of America’s most venerated conductors and composers, not only out of classical music realms but all kinds of Americana, jazz, and the musical stage in particular. However, Bernstein’s brand and image stretch well beyond.
Andris Nelsons described his being on the podium for such an occasion, saying “I’m nervous.” Nelsons told us a little about what it was like for him to celebrate Leonard Bernstein whom he greatly admired, as nearly everyone has. Nelsons confessed trying “to be like him. “Bernstein was born in the right place, here,” he said. From Lawrence Massachusetts, Bernstein moved to Brookline. He grew up and was educated right here in Boston. His long association with the BSO is history made before the very eyes—and ears—of many of us in attendance for this centennial gathering.
The customary pre-concert admonitions could barely be heard. Even when Concertmaster Malcom Lowe stood to launch the orchestra’s tuning, it would take more than a few moments for a jubilation to settle. And after the calm came Bernstein’s own roar of a brass-dominated rush of orchestral thrills in Sennets and Tuckets from Divertimento for Orchestra (1980). In the next movement, a gorgeously rounded cello took the lead in a waltz that you thought you already knew, but had to ask where did all those surprising melodic steps and harmonic turns come from? For each movement, eight in all, another color, another nod such as the oboe solo Bernstein took from Beethoven’s Fifth, another, a remake, his humorous Turkey Trot, and then the Blues with its hot jazzy riffs and licks. The BSO was completely in lock step.
Halil, Nocturne for solo flute with piccolo, alto flute, percussion, harp and strings (1977) is a title that speaks volumes about Bernstein the composer. It memorializes the short life of an Israeli flutist who died in a tank battle, the dedication reading, To the Spirit of Yadin and to his Fallen Brothers. Elizabeth Rowe, Principal Flute, meditated in a pristine and purest tone and breath. Near the opening of Halil, her heaven bent flute, supported by BSO’s strings in ever so muted human warmth, would tear up many. Much, though, of Halil flirted with the times, the seventies, when musical abstraction took a foothold throughout the world. The closing found the flutist standing silent for rather a long period. Was this meant to invoke the spirit of the missing soldier?
From the balcony we could not hear words or much voice from soprano Julia Bullock in songs from “Songfest,” and “Wonderful Town.” Our colleague in row T on the floor reported his intimate engagement with her, particularly enjoying her musical sighs in “A Little Bit of Love.” Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who is in a golden voiced period, knows how to sell a song and warm a crow, but her awkward stage business with members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in “I Am Easily Assimilated” from Candide, induced cringes.
This BSO celebration continued on further still resembling a night at the Pops with songs from Candide and Peter Pan. Symphonic Dances from West Side Story yet again revealed composer Bernstein’s extraordinary flair for orchestral scoring, if in this case perhaps expanded too far from the pit band origins. His finely-honed craft at carving out memorable melodies, and a predilection for cute endings, a transitional type of development, as well as his noticeable abhorrence to stay long enough in one place at a time, were also much in evidence. This ADD seemed to infuse an evening that tried too hard to be a variety show.
The Prologue alternately thrilled and stalled. “Somewhere” melted hearts, only momentarily, James Somerville, Principal Horn, caught hold of inspired serenity before a strange symphonic unfolding. “Maria” revealed herself in Cha-Cha, both surprising and cute but ultimately disappointing if not disheartening. Taking still bolder action, if that be the right word, the Finale of these dances, or sketches, closed with a whimper, an adagio vaguely signaling some of West Side’s inimitable nuclei.
The Booklet for this opener for the 137th season gleamed with photos of “the conductor, pianist, composer, educator, and all-around music personality,” as it promised more Bernstein during the season
Andris Nelsons kept the party going at a good clip. His moves seem to have had to be born instinctively, if not through inspiration alone, so many and so richly varied they were. The band fully engaged and enthused with clarity and sway for this sometimes really swinging outing. The musically boisterous night ended with one round of applause after another for soloist after soloist until the full orchestra stood, certainly a time for celebrating one of “our heroes” as the maestro proclaimed.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net