LEONARD BERNSTEIN AND THE PLEASURES OF THE VSO SPRING FESTIVAL

2018 VSO SPRING FESTIVAL: Joyce Yang (piano), Augustin Hadelich (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (violin/viola/conductor), Amanda Forsyth (cello), VSO/ Bramwell Tovey: Music of Bernstein, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Mozart, Orpheum, March 17-26, 2018.

 Photo by Susie Maeder (London)

Photo by Susie Maeder (London)

The Bernstein centenary is being celebrated throughout the world, and the VSO played its part by making the composer a dominant focus of its Spring Festival. While one might have wished for a more extended Bernstein-fest, core works such as ‘The Age of Anxiety’ and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story were presented, and one clear highlight was violinist Augustin Hadelich’s performance of the Serenade. The Chichester Psalms also figured in the first concert and Candide has been performed in a previous season. As with many younger conductors, Bramwell Tovey shares a strong spiritual identification with Bernstein: his in-concert discussion fondly recalled their first meeting at the Bernstein Festival at London’s Barbican Hall in May 1986. Recognition of Bernstein’s pioneering advocacy of Mahler in the 1960s also came through a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The final concert yielded a different sort of ‘family day’ event as violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist (and wife) Amanda Forsyth joined Tovey for Strauss’ Don Quixote, while Zukerman played and conducted Mozart. This review covers the final three (of the four) concerts.

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One has always been impressed with the tonal purity, precision and sheer life in the playing of Augustin Hadelich, but his collaboration with Bramwell Tovey in the Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’ revealed an even more enticing range of tonal shading and lyrical sensitivity. The violinist’s command of the angularity of Bernstein’s writing – both its rhythmic caprice and cutting intensity – was admirable early on, but the highlight was the rare refinement and heartfelt tenderness found in the Adagio (Agathon). This set up Hadelich’s playful jazziness and verve in the last movement superbly, and the orchestra collaborated to a tee. The concentration throughout this performance was enviable, perhaps finding more coherence and beauty in this work than I had previously realized. The violinist celebrated the occasion with an encore of Paganini’s 21st Caprice.

As one recalls from her original New York Philharmonic performances a decade ago and a very successful one here with Kazuyoshi Akiyama in 2014, Joyce Yang has been no less riveting in the piano part of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (‘The Age of Anxiety’). Rhythmic strength and mercurial passion underlie her rich-toned pianism, illuminating the elusive diversity of a work inspired by W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer-prize winning poem of the same name.  Doubtlessly, appraisal of the symphony has long wrestled with the questions of whether it is mainly a ‘personal’ representation of the poem’s characters or absolute music as such, and exactly what role the piano part should play.

The current performance tended more to the symphonic side, and was rather fulsome and weighty. Yang contributed many of her usual delights, but she sometimes seemed more deliberative, securing greater emphasis but also a less sparkling interaction with the orchestra. Part One coaxed out some feeling of narrative and some enticing sounds from Yang’s piano but the wind band seemed to tell less of its story. Part Two picked things up a bit, and Yang was certainly inspired at points, but I still felt a heaviness in the work’s motion, and the massive orchestral climax at the end seemed almost too big for the emotional trajectory established. This was acceptable enough, but I think that a slightly more intimate approach, with sharper conversational lines, can be at least as successful. Yang encored in the repertoire she absolutely loves: Earl Wild's transcription of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love.’ The performance of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in the following concert added to the bounty, with fine characterization and frisson, even if memories of the rhythmic bend and punch of Lenny himself were not erased.

The performance of Mahler’s Fourth celebrated Bernstein’s life-long commitment to this composer, though it is not clear that this symphony was the ideal choice. Bernstein’s 4th was not very well received in either its 1960 New York Philharmonic form with soprano Reri Grist or the later Deutsche Grammophon recording with a boy soprano in the finale: both had touches of self-consciousness alien to the purity and lyrical ease of this glorious work. Nonetheless, perhaps there was a tangible authenticity to Tovey’s reading. He started the opening movement pretty quickly like the earlier Bernstein recording, adopting a variety of tempos overall, and pulling things together with passionate emphasis at the movement’s end. Both conductors were united in their reluctance to put the beguiling jog-trot rhythm of this movement securely in stone.

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While Bernstein might have seemed too emphatic in his opening movement contrasts, Tovey’s orchestral line tended to be less clearly etched and rhythmically defined, rather breezy in fact, with the violins sometimes expanding out with a salon-like countenance. Interestingly, reticence did not extend to the horns, which maintained an excessively strong (and sometimes untamed) balance throughout.  Parts of the great Adagio came off well, only tempered by the recognition of a need for greater stillness (and less romantic shaping) at the beginning, and less speed at the end. Tovey’s slight sense of impatience and vulnerability to over-romanticization are exactly what one finds in the earlier Bernstein performance. Orchestral discipline was at its best in the finale and, while soprano Tracy Dahl cultivated an appealing girlish countenance, she did not dig as deeply into the words as she might. Indeed, this was the criticism of Reri Grist in the early Bernstein recording too. Clearly, Tovey’s traversal was not a perfectly finished reading; however, its parallels to early Bernstein gave it a nice vintage feel – a déjà vu that transported one back half a century to an era of Mahlerian innocence and experimentation.

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The arrival of violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth for the last night also brought some nostalgia too; namely, the violinist’s unabashedly traditional performance of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto. At relatively slow tempos, Zukerman had ample time to spin his sweet lines with plenty of romantic feeling.  His intonation was mainly good and he offered some patrician insights, while bringing a nicely transparent point and shape to the orchestral contribution.  Using a medium-sized string body, this still felt a little heavy overall, but one eye-opener was Zukerman’s exploratory cadenzas (of unknown provenance) and their joining ornaments.  These cadenzas were quite wild and vaguely recalled those Yehudi Menuhin used to play when he was in his more Enescu-like moods.

The festival’s closing work was Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, where both Zukerman – now on the viola – and Forsyth could play together in full delight with descriptions of each of the story’s variations appearing on large screens left and right. This was a fine performance of its type: Forsyth’s cello lines were very beautifully and cleanly-etched, imbued with a virtuoso ease, while her more inward legato expression was telling. Furthermore, Tovey’s orchestra seemed inspired by the work’s demands. This was an unmistakably cinematic treatment, following the story line variation-by-variation, with a self-conscious accent on humour and the ‘fantastic’  dominating an interest in probing the inner psychological complexity of the protagonist. The orchestra showed admirable attack in the score’s more vivid and wondrous moments; however, I missed some of the ‘human’ interaction between Don and Sancho Panza (Zukerman’s viola) and the sense of musical space in the work seemed less pronounced than it might, especially in softer episodes. Still very enjoyable, capping off a festival that fulfilled in many directions and endeared in its nostalgia.

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2018

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