Joshua Bell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra/Marcelo Lehninger

By Jonathan Blumhofer
The Arts Fuse
October 5, 2012

Love—or musical musings thereupon—was in the air at Symphony Hall this week as the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) presented its first orchestral subscription concert of the 2012–13 season on Thursday night (through October 6). Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade anchored the first half, while Dvorak’s Symphony no. 8, a paean to his beloved Czech homeland, was the sole work in the second. Marcelo Lehninger, who recently began his tenure as music director of the New West Symphony in California, conducted.

Though it’s one of his most recognizable scores, the BSO hadn’t played Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet at Symphony Hall since Carl St. Clair led it in November 1989. Who would have guessed? On Thursday, Lehninger drew a sound performance from the orchestra, though it was one that could have dialed up the passion meter a bit, especially over its first half. Still, the big moments came across strongly, featuring burnished playing by the horns and soaring string melodies. Perhaps the most memorable take-away from the performance was Lehninger’s ability to elucidate the music’s architecture: there was a clear, musical logic to his exposition of the score that was very satisfying (more on that to come). Robert Sheena’s English horn solos and harpist Jessica Zhou’s delicate account of her small but significant part were among several individual highlights of the reading.

Whatever intensity might have been lacking in the Tchaikovsky was more than made up for in the program’s second work, Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade, for solo violin, string orchestra, harp, and percussion. Serenade is, perhaps, Bernstein’s most successful, extended concert piece, not weighed down by the extra-musical excesses that can dog performances of some of his larger symphonic scores. There is a narrative flow to the work, to be sure (drawn from Plato’s Symposium), but, as in the best pieces by Berlioz, Liszt, and Strauss, Bernstein’s literary references are translated into direct, viscerally engaging musical arguments.

And the music has quite a bit going for it. The first movement opens with an extended violin solo recounting a simple melody; throughout Serenade, Bernstein treated this tune to a series of Liszt-ian thematic transformations that run the gamut of expressive and stylistic shades. Serenade’s instrumentation is one that allows a huge range of colors, of which Bernstein took full advantage: from the sweetly lyrical, dancing, first movement to the mercurial, machine gun patterns of the third, and on to the introspective, dissonant fourth and the jam session-like, jazzy finale, this is a score full of vigor, character, and life—perhaps more a portrait of Bernstein, himself, than anything else.

This weekend’s soloist, Joshua Bell, is a performer who perhaps best approximates Bernstein’s charismatic personality in performance: a fully engaged interpreter, he does not shy away from physically expressing the emotional content of what he’s playing. And he has been playing Serenade for a while. Bell recorded it with David Zinman and the Philharmonia Orchestra a little over a decade ago for Sony, presenting an interpretation that favored sweetness of tone over some of the steeliness one finds in Gidon Kremer’s performance or the muscularity of Hilary Hahn’s approach.

Bell’s performance on Thursday featured much of his familiar, beautiful tone and trademark impeccable intonation, but it also demonstrated a tremendous amount of artistic growth in his understanding of this music. There was a gravity to the slow movements (especially the haunting fourth movement, titled “Agathon”) that was lacking a decade ago. Similarly, he found a deeper sense of the humor in the first and third movements, and the finale brought out a moving duet with principal cellist Jules Eskin before the arrival of the raucous, dance-like section that ends the work.

As with all the pieces on the program, Lehninger conducted from memory, which is quite a feat—Bernstein was famous for his love of mixed meters and Serenade features them in abundance. There were a couple of rough patches: the third movement (“Eriximachus”) and parts of the finale featured some ragged ensemble moments, but these were of the kind that one expects everything will be righted in subsequent performances. It’s been a long near-20 years since the BSO last performed Serenade at Symphony Hall, and its return this weekend is welcome—kudos to Lehninger and Bell for bringing it back. One can only hope it reappears soon (and imagine how Bernstein might have approved this weekend’s vital, engaging presentation).

After intermission, Lehninger and the BSO returned with a powerful, compelling reading of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. One of the highlights of this summer’s archival Tanglewood releases was a 2008, James Levine-conducted performance of this piece with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. With that interpretation fresh in my ears, it was particularly vitalizing to hear Lehninger’s account, one that stressed the music’s dramatic trajectory while also clearly illuminating its busy, contrapuntal textures.

Tempos throughout were on the stately side—they certainly picked up where they needed to, but there was a spaciousness to Lehninger’s approach that one doesn’t always encounter in this luminous score—and that was part of its charm. The beginning of the first movement emphasized the lyrical element inherent in Dvorak’s musical language and that lyricism was present throughout, even in its stormy, Wagnerian climax. The slow movement was marked a sense of dramatic pacing that unfolded majestically and concluded with the night’s second cadence of captivating stillness (the close of Serenade’s “Agathon” was the first), while the elegance of the third movement’s trio and humor of its coda contrasted pleasantly with its melancholy opening.

Violinist Joshua Bell, performing Bernstein’s SERENADE, conducted by Marcelo Lehninger , with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Stu Rosner
Dvorak’s orchestral writing in the finale in some ways foreshadows Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra while also channeling the influence of Mahler (especially in the trilling horns). Thursday’s performance was a tour de force of sectional and individual solos that seemed to center around principal flute Elizabeth Rowe, who led the way with grace and aplomb.

So what to make of Lehninger and the BSO? Well, there seems to be a good rapport between conductor and orchestra, as was evidenced not only by the warm applause directed between both parties on the stage, but also through the teeming, spirited performances of two repertory staples and the driving, potent interpretation of a less familiar one he drew from the ensemble. Lehninger’s clear understanding of pacing and employment of musical form to expressive ends demonstrated strong musical instincts and communication skills that one doesn’t necessarily find in more experienced conductors (let alone a youth of 32). Yes, he’s got some room to grow (which is to be expected), but on Thursday night the BSO played for Lehninger as though he were a star conductor of the caliber of Esa-Pekka Salonen or Bernard Haitink, and that should speak for itself: this guy’s going places.

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