No “Hack” in BSO’s Take on The Classics

By Michael Johnson
Boston Musical Intelligencer
October 5, 2012

The Boston Symphony Orchestra went decidedly intellectual on us last night with two-thirds of its varied program inspired by classics of the written word. It took some effort to connect the music to the writings but one needn’t have bothered. This glorious music stands on its own.

The program, scheduled to be repeated at Symphony Hall this afternoon and Saturday evening, featured Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, inspired by Plato’s Symposium, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, based on four scenes from the Shakespeare play. The final piece was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, a heavy dose of emotional Bohemian fireworks, all under the able baton of the BSO’s impressive young Assistant Conductor, Marcelo Lehninger.

I approached the opening selection, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy, with some dread, having heard it probably 50 or 60 times since childhood. It leans even more toward program music than Bernstein’s Serenade, vividly dramatizing a broad range of moods such as the warfare between Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues and the balcony love song. I was wrong. If this is an overexposed piece, Lehninger quickly took the “hack” out of hackneyed. His reading found subtleties and dynamics I had never noticed, controlling the BSO players in great sweeps from ppp to fff and back. Led by Lehninger, this piece puts an orchestra through it paces and shows what is possible from an assemblage of fine players. It is no fault of Tchaikovsky’s, nor the BSO, that the familiar love song passage keeps turning up as background music in weird places such as Wayne’s World, South Park, and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Bernstein’s neglected Serenade stood out as the centerpiece of the concert, a work of great originality that many in the audience were clearly hearing for the first time. Eerie and obscure in parts, it explodes with Bernstein’s trademark brio and contains several echoes, some might say intrusive echoes, of the famous tritone figure he recycled later for “Maria” in West Side Story. American violinist Joshua Bell, fresh from an appearance with the Seattle Symphony where he performed the same piece to critical acclaim, put his stamp on the evening with a vibrant performance of great lyricism and virtuosity.

Serenade attempts to interpret Plato’s work on the genesis and meaning of love as discussed by some of the great ancient Greeks. Mark DeVoto wondered in these pages a few weeks ago why Bernstein attempted to link to Plato, concluding that he may have had “too much Harvard” on the brain in 1954 when he composed it. If Bernstein got it right, there was a fair amount of yelling around that table in Athens in 385 B.C. It was called Serenade less for its unique form than but for the idyllic European setting in which it was composed. A detailed analysis of the Plato work is available on the BSO website.

Bell, virtually dancing with his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius, opened Serenade with an exquisitely lyrical solo passage. In the second movement Bernstein introduces playful asides, still allowing the violin to retain its delicacy and dominance. The third movement brings in vigorous dialogue with the strings, sprinkled with humor, and concluding with a heart-stopping resolution.

The Adagio fourth movement, a three-part song, builds on the third, with harmonies of piercing beauty emanating from the reduced orchestra. By now, Bell’s Strad had become an extension of his lithe frame. The final movement, a virtuoso turn with devilish rhythms, evokes violent argumentation among the Athenian worthies, punctuated with the full panoply of tools in the percussion section. The very Bernsteinian climax brought a standing ovation and yelps from the audience (not that this means much nowadays – audience jump to their feet on cue and for various personal reasons).

The real warhorse of this program, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G, was let loose after the intermission. Generally accepted as his most modern composition, this work, wrote one critic, is among the Bohemian symphonies of the 19th century that were once regarded as a “provincial art form in fancy dress.” As recently as the late 1960s, a recording of the complete Dvorak cycle under Czech exile Rafael Kubelik changed all that, and now the 8th is firmly rooted in the concert repertoire.

Audiences like the lush opening theme, which produces a feeling of softness and calm, highlighted by birdsong figures from the flutes. To this listener, the 8th combines many appealing passages of swelling strings and other orchestral effects — but mixed with a great deal of noise. Lehninger managed to haul some real music out of the brass but with what appeared to be Herculean physical effort. Dvorak’s explosive blasts jolt the experience throughout, and the fourth movement includes another crowd-pleaser, the famous trilling of the horns. It all ends in an apocalyptic eruption. Again, the audience leapt to its feet.

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