'Tis the season - for Leonard Bernstein.
This subscription season, orchestras around the country are celebrating the centennial of the birth (Aug. 25, 1918) of Bernstein, the great 20th century American composer, conductor, pianist and all-around advocate for our art. As such, this anniversary has brought more attention to a violin concerto that deserves wider recognition: Bernstein's "Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)."
On Friday Bernstein's "Serenade" took center stage at Disney Hall, with violinist Hilary Hahn performing the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a performance that will be repeated Sunday. This was the second performance of the piece that I'd seen this fall; the first was when Joshua Bell played it with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in September.
On Friday, the LA Phil was led by conductor Jonathon Heyward, filling in for Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who was ill. Heyward is part of the LA Phil's Dudamel Conducting Fellowship and is currently Assistant Conductor of The Hallé.
As soon as Hahn appeared on stage, she launched straight into the work, which begins with an extended solo passage. Each of the concerto's five movement are named after seven ancient Greeks who appear in Plato's Symposium: Phaedrus & Pausanias; Aristophanes; Erixymathus; Agathon; Socrates & Alcibiades, though the LA Phil's program notes acknowledged that Bernstein said "there is no literal program for this Serenade. The music, like Plato’s dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love."
Still, each movement has a distinct character, and on Friday the outline of those characters was a little murky at first but grew clearer as the work progressed. Hahn's technique was brilliant, and the LA Phil is a satisfyingly tight band, but the balance between soloist and orchestra took some time to achieve. During the first movement the orchestra occasionally overpowered the soloist. The second movement, with its interplay between soloist and violin soli, felt like it needed more clarity in its musical direction - what should dominate and when? The speedy passages in the third movement were wicked-accurate and amazing to behold in both soloist and orchestra. The fifth movement was where everyone hit their stride. With its rapidity, constantly changing meter and sheer volume, this movement sounds like a strangely thrilling cross between a runaway train and an elephant dancing. The audience rose in a standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece. With no intermission in this Friday program, Hahn did not play an encore.
The last part of the program featured Stravinsky's "Firebird" (originally it was to have featured Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 3). This work brought about a more decisive conducting style from Heyward as well as assured playing from the orchestra. Thought this piece was written in more than a century ago and my introduction to it is well in the past, I had to marvel anew at the way it feels like a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of orchestral sound. A line can pass from piano to piccolo to tuba, and somehow it's seamless music. What a brilliant piece, and beautiful work by the woodwind section of the LA Phil.
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