Review: Joshua Bell Performs Bernstein 'Serenade' with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

October 1, 2017, 1:32 PM · When I heard that violinist Joshua Bell would perform Saturday's season-opener with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Saturday I knew I wanted to go, without checking what he'd be playing. I assumed he'd play a well-worn violin work by Mozart, Lalo, Bruch, etc.

When I realized he was playing the "Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)" by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), I no longer just wanted to see it -- I had to see it.

Joshua Bell, Leonard Bernstein
Joshua Bell; Leonard Bernstein.

The Bernstein "Serenade" is an extraordinary work -- arresting, relevant, and punch-it-out-of-the-park virtuosic. Somehow it manages moments both intimate and larger-than-life. Come to think of it, why hasn't this piece truly taken center-stage, in the universe of works for solo violin?

My own theory: perhaps it has an identity crisis.

The first time I encountered Bernstein's "Serenade," I immediately tripped over its name and "program." First, "Serenade" -- is this a violin concerto? Yes, it is. Second, do I need advanced coursework in Classical Greek history and philosophy to understand this piece? Program notes always dutifully describe its five movements as pertaining to a conversation between seven ancient Greeks who appear in Plato's Symposium: Phaedrus & Pausanias; Aristophanes; Eryximachusl; Agathon; Socrates & Alcibiades. The subject of their conversation is "in praise of love."

Bernstein himself, while saying the piece had "no literal program," nonetheless wrote a detailed description based on the Symposium characters.

I've always felt duty-bound to find -- and truly feel -- this connection. Yet I never have. Whatever Bernstein's inspiration, I simply find another piece in this utterly beautiful, meaningful, moving work that was written in 1954. I hear the ache of the 20th century in its harmonies. I hear the isolation and chill of the Cold War in its moments of stillness. I hear a harmonic kinship with contemporaries such as Shostakovich, who were shut off behind the Iron Curtain, yet I hear the joy and energy of the human spirit, skirting the extremes of pitch and volume as it breaks out in dance and exuberance. I hear the chaos and noise of the growing cities, even the march of modernism, in its angular rhythms. Love? Maybe. But as a distinctly 20th-century story -- not as a conversation between the ancients.

Listening to Bell play this work with his 1713 "Huberman" Strad, backed up by LACO and guest conductor Jaime Martin on Saturday, I had another chance to search for meaning in the Serenade, and I still found myself immersed in its modern message.

The piece begins with violin alone, a single voice tracing a kind of lament. In the hands of Bell, it was an unwavering voice, arresting yet vulnerable. That lament culminates in one of the highest notes possible on the violin - an A - then prances into a skittish dance, riddled with fast little leaps that made Bell dance a bit. Yes, Bell is a kinetic player, but even at his most physically emphatic, nothing harsh escapes his violin. (Note: Bell used the sheet music for this performance, though I never saw him look at it. Perhaps this piece is considered "chamber music," for which many feel proper protocol is to use the music.)

Bell's singing double-stops and lyricism, over a mesmerizing orchestral line, had the audience in a state of exceptional quiet in the second movement. In the third movement, Bernstein creates an almost comical back-and-forth between the soloist and orchestra: several times the soloist rips off an impossibly fast and intricate lick, then the entire orchestra parrots it back. Bell and LACO executed this playfully, yet with the precision that made the joke work.

The fourth movement pulses like a heartbeat, drawing on the aching motives of the first. With the violin riding high over this pattern, Bell brought it all to a single quiet yet full-bodied note. For all his movement, Bell is also a master of stillness. The orchestra grows enormously, then the soloist breaks into a cadenza of juicy double-stops.

The last movement contains a duet between violin and cello (kudos to LACO Principal Cellist Andrew Shulman), then erupts into noise and anxiety, an out-of-control freight train, going 90 miles an hour, running through a landscape of constantly changing meters. For all that, it was a great ride with Bell and LACO. The audience gave him a standing ovation and three curtain calls; he did not give an encore. He did greet a long line of audience members during intermission. LACO's program also included Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio," and in the second half, Brahms' Serenade No. 1 in D major, Op. 11.

Laurie Niles, Joshua Bell Editor Laurie Niles and violinist Joshua Bell, after his performance Saturday with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

* * *

At the end of October, Bell will perform the Bernstein "Serenade" with the New York Philharmonic, as part of its series of Bernstein Centennial concerts this season.

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October 1, 2017 at 09:42 PM · Gosh, Laurie, your review makes me want to hop on a plane and fly from Atlanta to catch the remaining Bell/LACO concert of this totally unfamiliar piece to me. Nothing wrong with dreaming, right?? Are there any recordings out there of this piece yet?

October 1, 2017 at 10:10 PM · Great review and good photo of you two!

October 1, 2017 at 10:10 PM · Thank you, Kay!

Martha, you could also catch it in NY at the end of the month! Yes there are quite a few:

Brian Lewis (2006) - this also has Michael McLeans wonderful violin concerto, Elements.

Anne Akiko Meyers (2015)

Philippe Quint (2005)

Vadim Gluzman (2009) (There is also a Youtube with Gluzman)

That ought to give you a start! The work was premiered by Isaac Stern.

October 1, 2017 at 10:38 PM · Bernstein recorded his Serenade with three different violinists: Isaac Stern, Zino Francescatti and Gidon Kremer. I heard Glenn Dicterow play the Serenade in the mid-'80s at Royce Hall when the NY Phil was on tour with Bernstein conducting. Great concert!

October 2, 2017 at 01:42 AM · Thanks Laurie for a wonderful insight into the the not so often performed Serenade. I recall an exciting concert with San Francisco concertmaster Stuart Canin performing this work with Seiji Ozawa back in the '70s. I heard he spent many months studying it. So glad you took in Joshua Bell's recent concert shared this beautiful review. Thanks to such a genius Bernstein.

October 2, 2017 at 06:52 AM · To see a performance of it, with Bernstein conducting - wow David!

October 2, 2017 at 02:12 PM · I think you're right. Calling it a "serenade" and interfacing it to Greek literature probably kept this piece from sharing the spotlight with other works of the same generation. Perhaps there was also the perception that the jack-of-all-trades is master of none. He wrote in so many different formats and genres that perhaps his influence (while immeasurable overall) was insufficiently concentrated in the "classical" arena.

October 2, 2017 at 03:27 PM · Laurie, I had the good fortune to hear the "Serenade" for the first time a year ago at the Brevard Music Festival. Robert McDuffie (my all-time fave violinist) delivered an amazing performance!!! McDuffie spoke for about 10 minutes prior to the piece and introduced all the themes, characters, and storylines (a la Peter & the Wolf). It helped tremendously! (It was also quite amazing how he could literally "drop the needle" on fiendishly difficult passages right after speaking without missing a beat. And the orchestra was always right with him.) I became an instant fan of the piece and also wondered why it isn't performed more regularly. Thanks for your thoughtful review!

October 2, 2017 at 07:24 PM · I've always liked this work and wanted to programme it. I think the reason it's not done more is a practical one re orchestration as it needs harp, large percussion plus strings.

October 3, 2017 at 02:14 AM · Good point, Madeleine!

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