Arts concert review

Feel the Bern-stein

A symphonic surprise of an opening night

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BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons leads Julia Bullock and Frederica Von Stade on opening night.
Michael Blanchard

Opening Night: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Season Celebration

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Sept. 22, 2017

Opening nights are always a blast, full of well-dressed people, old and young, all lined up in front (and around the corner!) of the imposing Boston Symphony Hall. Stepping inside, the exuberance of the hall grows, the gracious white-and-gold architecture subtly contrasted by a neat criss-crossing of wires and microphones.

As it turns out, this would be a theme throughout the night, grandeur reminiscent of times past, with gracious modernisms worked lightly in. Appropriately so, as the performance was dedicated to Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), one of the most talented composers of his time. Having written music and words for classics like West Side Story and Peter Pan (both of which were featured), Bernstein also did a number of educational talks, becoming the personal hero of many of those both on stage and in the audience. Bernstein, as it turns out, grew up in Lawrence, and went to Harvard, making him quite the local lad. In fact, Divertimento for Orchestra was written for BSO’s centennial.

But I digress. No sooner had I found my seat and got situated did the conductor (Andris Nelsons) stride onstage, in his pseudo-tux (he needed something a bit more flexible than the traditional apparel), accepting brief applause, and begin the dramatic first movement of Divertimento for Orchestra. I was immediately struck by the uncharacteristic, but masterfully presented bounce in this high energy piece, contrasted by the following movement’s more classical feel. As the piece moved on (all eight movements of it), Bernstein’s contrasting styles of the very classical first and second movements, to the playful bounce of Turkey Trot (movement III), to the nearly James-Bond level of swing in movement VII. The latter surprised me greatly, as symphony halls are not generally known for their ability to jump from a piece played in classical style to a jazzy feel, but these performers nailed it, drummer, horns, everything.

Following that impressive start, flutist Elizabeth Rowe walked to the front of the stage, in a cameo pink flowing dress, contrasting the black-and-white of the other performers, about to play Halil. Bit of backstory: Bernstein wrote Halil in honor of a young Israeli flutist, Yadin Tenenbaum, who had died in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The piece has military undertones throughout (complete with drummers that aren’t monkeys with sticks!), but is marked by a certain sadness mixed with melancholy. An emotion which Ms. Rowe captured eloquently, making full use of both the dynamic and timbral ranges of the flute. The piece’s heart of hope and soul of darkness were lain bare for the audience, who were left awed, hanging on to last sustained note, played by a single flute alone, but hopeful.

From such a solid focus on instrumental music, and varied styles therein, the program moved to a selection of Bernstein’s more famous vocal works “A Julia de Burgos” from Songfest, Piccola serenata, “A Little Bit of Love” from Wonderful Town, “It must be so” from Candide (all sung by the talented young soprano, Julia Bullock), “I am easily assimilated” from Candide (sung by Frederica Von Stade, who knew Leonard Bernstein personally, and host for the evening, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus), and “Neverland” from Peter Pan (sung by both vocalists). While all of these were beautiful pieces, the operatic nature of the vocalists’ performances contrasted the more modern feel of the orchestra; most notably in “A Little Bit in Love”, which had the orchestra transformed once more into a jazz band, combining somewhat discordantly with the operatic nature of Ms. Bullock’s performance. That said, the effect was relatively minor in the scope of the pieces.

I would be remiss, however, not to mention the comical nature of “I am easily assimilated” and its costumes and (small amount of) choreography, were fittingly inspired by a stereotypical dinner party. Somewhat less discordant than the other vocal performances, this humorous piece was assembled near perfectly.

Finally, it came time for the big hitter. “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story. I cannot praise this rendition of the piece enough. The subtle plays in timbre, the playful countermelodies, the melancholy undertones, all had me wanting to get up and dance along, as the conductor practically did. In the Prologue, the famous initial confrontation between the Sharks and the Jets, could almost see the gangs go at each other, especially when the orchestra set aside their instruments momentarily to provide the infamous snapping motif! The vigor captured by the orchestra was beyond exceptional, presenting the Maria motif quietly and using both timbral and dynamic contrast to give it new meaning throughout, consistently underscored by the low strings to keep in the listener’s mind the tragedy that will befall the star-crossed lovers was simply beautiful. Furthermore, and I’m going to keep saying this, because it is impressive, I was surprised by warmth of the brass, and its ability to drop into a jazzy style at the drop of a hat. Even more unusual for a symphony orchestra were the drummers; their solo’s, dynamic control, and ability to change the colour of the piece was astounding.

This was an astounding concert, really putting BSO’s best foot forward with contrasting styles, magnificent solos, and tremendous sound. I look forward to the remaining concerts of this year’s season!