A Serenade from the VSO
Vadim Gluzman, violin and James Gaffigan, conductor
Works by R. Strauss, Bernstein, and Beethoven - Orpheum, March 9, 2013
At most symphony concerts, one arrives to the buzz of the full orchestra warming up on stage, its sound seemingly heightening the anticipation of the opening work. On this occasion, there was no orchestra to be found, no bright lights, not even a musician wandering between the orchestra seats. Had the orchestra forgotten? No, just at concert time, a procession of 13 VSO wind and brass players snuck in very quietly, sat down and began playing Richard Strauss’ youthful Serenade for Winds, Op.7 (1881) under guest conductor James Gaffigan. A lovely and intimate experience it was and one which did the musicians proud. The ensemble’s balance was excellent, with clean and alive articulation. If only there were candles, this performance might have served as a touching present for a loved one, much like Richard’s Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, written as a birthday surprise for his wife Cosima.
Moving from this serenade to Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Solo Violin and Orchestra (1954) couldn’t have involved a bigger change in scenery. Although deriving its imagery from Plato’s ‘Symposium’, here we have a thoroughly modern work for a larger orchestra, combining the wit and play, deep devotion, and ‘jazziness’ that typifies this composer’s style. Ukranian/ Israeli violinist, Vadim Gluzman whose Shostakovich impressed us so much in his previous visit, did not disappoint. Starting from the beautiful introduction for violin solo, Gluzman provided a most eloquent reading of his part. With his wonderfully pure but rich tone, he was able to find the many varieties of nobility, wit and passion that the score requires. Commanding and structured at many points, he could also relax into the quietest flip of a phrase or subtlest rhythmic syncopation with the greatest ease.
Gluzman’s playing was indeed formidable but, since the inspiration of this work is its sense of ‘dialogue’ (as in Plato), the interaction with the orchestra is critical. Here I felt the lines of the work, its interactions, and its contrasts were not as sharply etched as they might be. The VSO’s playing was strong but somewhat too comfortable and generalized. But perhaps I am spoiled by the intensity and rhythmic snap of the composer’s own recordings, the first with Issac Stern; the second with Gidon Kremer.
It is always special when a concert finishes with Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, certainly one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Young James Gaffigan’s interpretation fits with the ‘authentic’ movement of the past two decades (see conductors David Zinman, Claudio Abbado, and John Eliot Gardner), highlighting clean lines, a small-orchestra feel and avoiding obvious romantic excess. His reading was refreshing in ways but underdeveloped in others. The light, balletic feel to the opening theme of the first movement was distinctive (recall that the last movement of this symphony shares a common theme with Beethoven's ballet music from 'Creatures of Prometheus’), but the integration with the more thrusting and powerful elements of the music was not fully realized. The famous ‘Funeral March’ was developed with clean, purposive lines but did not quite capture the empty still at the movement’s end. Interesting balletic elements again in the last movement but perhaps too bouncy at points, and with the execution not exact enough in the quiet, tragic sequence just before the coda. Certainly, an enjoyable concert experience overall, but the reality is that it takes many years to master this symphony.
© Geoffrey Newman 2013