Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Two Serenades by any other name would sound as sweet…


REVIEW

Joshua Bell, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Royce Hall, UCLA
DAVID J BROWN

Guest soloist Joshua Bell, violin, performs Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by guest conductor Jaime Martín, in his Los Angeles debut, at the opening night concert for the Orchestra’s 50th anniversary season on September 30, 2017, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA. 

The opening program of the LACO’s 50th anniversary season, under the baton of guest conductor Jaime Martín (also given the previous evening at Alex Theatre, Glendale), featured two major works, both entitled “Serenade” but which could easily be styled “concerto” and “symphony” respectively. Before the interval, Joshua Bell played Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion, while the second half was devoted to Brahms’ Serenade No.1 in D major Op.11. The concert opener was the overture to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio K.384

Before the music, however, came a very touching human prelude: the orchestra’s executive director, Scott Harrison, assisted onto the platform James Arkatov, who in 1968 founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Mr. Arkatov’s short speech of reminiscence, and congratulation to the orchestra, was greeted with applause as warm as it was lengthy, by players and audience alike. 

In the Mozart overture, Señor Martín immediately established his credentials with sharply accented dynamic contrasts, though quite a steady tempo for the initial Presto marking. The “Turkish music” that further enlivens the overture’s first section seemed to be played on smaller “period” versions of the cymbals and bass drum (plus triangle), judging by the lighter, more “splashy” percussion sound, matching appropriately the general exuberance. The conductor gave full measure to the fermata before the overture’s slower central section and then positively reveled in the contrast of tempi, turning Mozart’s Andante into something more like an Adagio espressivo for the dotted sixteenth-notes and eighth-notes on the strings with which it begins. All good dramatic fun and indicative of plenty of character to come. 

The Bernstein centennial began officially on August 25, his 99th birthday, and a quick glance at the intimidatingly corporate Leonard Bernstein at 100 website shows a juggernaut of celebratory performances through to the same date next year that seems to have onboard virtually every orchestra in North America and plenty beyond. This Brit music-lover, who grew up with the unconvinced reaction of our musical establishment to the Bernstein phenomenon, remains to some extent on the outside looking in, wondering how many of the works by “without question the greatest musician America has ever produced” (as the first liner-note sentence for one CD I own of the Serenade unequivocally has it) will have a sustained life in the concert-hall once the centennial bandwagon has passed by.

Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s.
This Serenade, however, is surely high on the list, and last Sunday’s performance spelled out why. Leaving aside questions of how far the Platonic titular impulse was an afterthought for the composer, there was no denying the inspired and original layout of its five highly contrasted movements, the beauty and memorability of its themes, and the imagination with which these themes mutate and cross-reference from one movement to the next.

Mr. Bell, Señor Martín, and the relatively slender body of players Bernstein requires, vividly projected the Serenade’s sound-world: the “Phaedrus” introduction effortlessly unspooled on Mr. Bell’s violin, followed by the motoric vigor of the main “Pausinius” body of the first movement; the delicate wryness of the "Aristophanes"  Allegretto; the explosive start and quicksilver progress of the brief “Erixymachos” Presto; and the sombre, ecstatic richness of the “Agathon” Adagio, conveyed by all with truly re-creative sensibility. Only the bipartite finale, as ever for me, failed to convince as a coherent movement. After the thoughtfulness of "Socrates", with its probing conversation between solo violin and principal ‘cello (plus a really big string sound here despite the 8-7-4-4-2 large-chamber-sized resources of the LACO), the sudden levity of the concluding “Alcibiades” jolted in the wrong way, as if Officer Krupke, back in ancient Greece courtesy of the TARDIS, had crashed in to join the party. But then, for Bernstein in 1954, the composition of West Side Story was just around the corner. 

Perhaps on an alternate Earth in an alternate Universe, in an alternate Düsseldorf around 1859, an alternate 26-year-old Johannes Brahms, on completing the final version of his first large-scale orchestral work without a soloist, proudly published it as his “Symphony No. 1 in D major”. This work would (in that alternate universe) change the course of musical history. In a revolutionary six movements rather than the standard Classical four, its originality of overall form, compositional mastery, and freshness, would throw into retrospective relief Brahms’ subsequent four symphonies (with a particular kinship to the second of those to come) – all in the four-movement pattern – and broaden yet further his supremacy as a symphonist. 

Brahms (left) and Joachim (right) in 1855.
A fanciful scenario, of course, but not so distant from the implications of Señor Martín’s brief impromptu talk before the second half. Historically, he said, a serenade was “street music”, but neither of the large-scale works so titled this evening could be considered “street music”. Bernstein could easily have called his a violin concerto, while Brahms was encouraged to make his a symphony by his great friend Joseph Joachim, who urged him to expand and orchestrate its original (later destroyed) nonet form; indeed, thereafter Joachim referred to it as the “symphony-serenade”. Instead, however, Brahms settled on the title Serenade No.1 in D major for his Op.11, and thereby consigned it to the underplayed sidelines of his output. 

That Señor Martín believes totally in the work was manifest throughout his performance, which was simply one of the best I’ve ever heard of it. He and his orchestra got almost everything right, from the vigorous Allegro molto with which the first movement was unleashed, the principal horn covering himself in glory in his solo first statement of the jubilant and indelibly memorable first theme. The conductor divided his first and second violins left and right, thus securing both a platform-wide sweep of tone when they played in unison and clarification of the many passages of contrapuntal interplay between the two groups. And then when he reached the end of the first movement’s lengthy exposition, he observed its repeat, underlining and emphasizing further (if there was any doubt) the symphonic scale. 

Brahms follows with a large-scale Scherzo in ¾ time. Its scurrying, slightly furtive first bar sounds a lot like that of the Allegro appassionato second movement in the Piano Concerto No.2, but immediately sideslips away from anything so portentous into a cool-tempered waltz, which itself, as it segues into the Trio section maintaining the waltz time, blossoms into positively Schubertian amplitude, all conveyed here with the utmost swing and joy by orchestra and conductor. The slow movement is as expansive and symphonically scaled as the first two, but Señor Martín cannily took full account of the non troppo with which the young Brahms carefully qualifies his Adagio marking, and thus ensured no longueurs. Indeed his control was so careful, and the playing per se so stylish, that I would have been happy if he had risked relaxing and luxuriating a little more. 

With only three of the six movements done but more than a half-hour already elapsed, Brahms then avoids outstaying his welcome by dispatching the remaining three in half that time, and with their brevity contrives to subvert and divert the work’s aspirations to symphonic substance, in its first half, toward serenading nonchalance in its second. The fourth movement comprises a pair of tiny minuets, and the LACO’s woodwind burbled as deliciously in the first of these as the first violins and violas conversed discreetly and affectingly in the second. The horns galloped royally in the fifth movement, a second Scherzo, and with this – as concise as the first Scherzo is extended – done and dusted in three minutes or so, Señor Martín made an unmarked attacca into the Rondo finale. 

This masterful movement, despite its brevity, encompasses a teeming inventiveness in the episodes between repetitions of its rondo theme, Brahms tightening the structural knot by reusing in altered form the main melody from the first movement. This performance imbued the fragmentation of that melody towards the close with an almost vocal “farewell” quality, before gathering up the reins for the surge to the finish. It is only regrettable that some of the audience, presumably having had their superstar fix with Mr. Bell’s appearance, didn't return after the interval, and that when for once a standing ovation was deserved, this magnificent performance of Brahms’ youthful masterpiece didn’t get it from more than a smallish number. 

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Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Royce Hall UCLA, Sunday, October 1, 2017, 7 p.m.
Photos: Orchestra, conductor, and soloist: Michael Mancillas for Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Brahms and Joachim: photographer unknown; Leonard Bernstein: photographer unknown.

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