April 9, 2004

Berstein piece enlivens Gilbert's turn at "superstar" conducting

This concert—conducted by the accomplished Alan Gilbert—opened with Sibelius' symphonic poem Night Ride and Sunrise and closed with Nielsen's sinfonia espansiva. These were nice, predictable works, impeccably executed but quite uninteresting. The former seems to deserve its relative obscurity—its few resurrections, in the name of artistic curiosity, serve to convince us that its rarity is not a historical dereliction. It is entirely to Gilbert's credit that he managed to infuse some drama into Night Ride and Sunrise. The high point of the work was the stirring declarations of dawn, set against roseate orchestral hues in the latter half of the piece. The sinfonia espansiva is a beautiful piece, one that does not cause tension or upheaval in any capacity. It illumines, but does not necessarily reveal. A pleasing work like this one cannot, in all fairness, be called soporific, but it certainly isn't monumental, either. Gilbert gave as fiery an exposition as the material allowed. Ironically, the very brilliance of his attempted interpretation did more to highlight the deficiencies of the piece than the most eloquent music criticism. It was as though the symphony was the closing argument of a gifted lawyer, whose feats of logic and athletically causal inflections were in themselves testament to the weaknesses of his client's case.

The real "life" of the concert lay in what came in between these two pieces—Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra. This work premiered September 12, 1954, with Bernstein himself conducting the orchestra of the Venetian Teatro La Fenice and Isaac Stern as the violin soloist. Based on Plato's Symposium, the piece's five movements correspond to opening statements of Phaedrus and Pausanias, Eryximachus's and Aristophanes's speeches, the arguments of Socrates, and, finally, the interruption of Alcibiades and his drunken companions and the subsequent degeneration into chaos. Each of the arguments is exquisitely crafted, a blend of literary impressions and delightfully parachronistic music that Bernstein described as "the natural expression of a contemporary American composer imbued with the spirit of that timeless dinner party."

Leonard Bernstein—"Lenny" for short—was one of the most intriguing figures in modern music: a conductor, composer, pianist, and teacher. Some have argued that he spread himself too thinly and ought to have confined himself to one or two areas of expertise, but in the words of Ken Meltzer, the question becomes "What would you have him give up? He excelled at all of them." History has perhaps best remembered him as a conductor—huge, dramatic gestures, larger-than-life interpretations and his amazing, coruscating energy etched the image of the archetypical "conductor as superstar" into the public imagination.

Although his technique appeared to be a form of expressionistic chaos in which everything was spontaneously conceived, it was actually meticulously planned. The conductor and the orchestra would work out the details of the performance at the rehearsals, and that was precisely how the work would be interpreted in the concert.

Their unshakeable foundations of preparation created an element of unpredictability in the actual performance with nervous excitement, moments of sensuous beauty, blazing flames and searing intensity. It has been charged that Bernstein uses the music as accompaniment to his own conducting—but I would contend that Bernstein used such a technique not in the interests of pure showmanship but because the music demanded it. He had to express its philosophy to the best of his ability, and this was the only way he knew to induce precisely the sound he envisaged from the orchestra.

The rise of the conductor as an autonomous entity (distinct from the performer or composer) is a relatively recent phenomenon that occurred somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. It rose out of the much older tradition of choral conducting, and the baroque-era orchestras were actually under dual control of the composer who played the basso continuo (the Kappellmeister) and the first violinist (the Concertmeister). It was the latter who eventually developed into the modern day conductor.

Parallel to this development—and in some ways inextricably linked to it—is the rise of interpretation as an art form. The composer left us with an orchestral score that is essentially a series of instructions and directions about his original musical intent. Each direction may be executed in a myriad of ways, all of which could be equally right and compelling. Interpretation is essentially the task of re-creating a work from the past while maintaining a balance between historical verisimilitude and contemporary relevance. It involves using the materials at hand—namely, the composer's score—in order to make an artistic statement and reflect a viewpoint. Bernstein's interpretive ethic tends towards the tradition of subjectivity, emphasizing the importance of the interpreter as a creative medium. This tradition of "Interpretive Romanticism" includes figures like Wilhelm Furtwängler, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter and Leopold Stokowski.

Alan Gilbert rendered the Serenade with a keen eye for nuance and detail and Tai Murray brought a flawless technique, magnificent depth and almost preternatural insight to his violin solo. (I'm thinking specifically of the block chord that depicts Alcibiades' precipitate entry into Agathon's house). She began this part by creating a wonderfully heavy-handed and pedantic atmosphere with Socrates and his recounting of Diotima's philosophy. He built this up with superbly predictable unpredictability, suddenly flinging Alcibiades on the floor of the soundscape, then employing her rubato to make his entrance seem hilarious and horrific at the same time.

One could go on in superlatives about the entire piece. The melody, taken up by the entire string section in a majestic fugue that morphs into a sonata, is soaring, clear and complex, delivered by Murray with an unparalleled lyricism. The fairy-like motifs that dance around shimmering orchestral textures in Aristophanes' myths are charming. The fugato that embodies the spirit of Eryximachus' argument is appropriately frenzied, and of course the jazz-inspired Allegro molto vivace that closes the piece is just wonderful. Both Murray and Gilbert recaptured the sparkling, effervescent wit of Bernstein's composition in their performance, but that wasn't all. They also encapsulated the intense colors, bold depictions, Romantic individualism, flamboyant projections, poignant introspection and haunting subjectivity that form the quintessence of the his aesthetic. They magnificently interpreted both the music and the philosophy of the inimitable Lenny B.