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Review: A ‘Brilliantly Rendered’ Bernstein Tribute By the New York Philharmonic

Leonard Bernstein

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, October 26, 2017

Of all the events marking Leonard Bernstein and his centennial, surely the most authentic, and to my mind the most intrinsically moving, is the Philharmonic’s three-week festival, aptly titled Bernstein’s Philharmonic, which opened last night at Geffen Hall.

The program consisted of Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” symphony, which he completed on his twenty-fifth birthday in 1942, his Serenade, a de-facto violin concerto “after Plato’s Symposium,” written in 1953-54, in tandem with early work on Candide, and an “Homage to L.B.” by the young Dutch composer Joey Roukens, premiered in Amsterdam just last year. On hand to do the honors were Alan Gilbert, Bernstein’s immediate past successor as music director of the orchestra, and Joshua Bell, whose Bernstein album, released in 2001, was a classical chart-topper.

Roukens’ Boundless, a three-movement riff on Bernstein’s Serenade and a few of his piano pieces, was not ideally suited either to its place at the head of the program or to the hall’s acoustic, but it’s an attractive piece, and Roukens has a beautiful ear. We’re bound to hear more of him in the future. In the meantime, try this and this.

Otherwise, what can I say? New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town, and this was one hell of a concert.

Forget all the aesthetic heartburn over Bernstein as a composer. These pieces are beautifully conceived, brilliantly rendered, rich in awareness of their historical moment but not limited by it, and full of recognizably human gestures that ravish the senses while speaking to the mind and stirring the heart. Yes, of course, Bernstein knew his Shostakovich and his Stravinsky very well—shouldn’t we all?—but he put it to the best possible use while developing a strong, authentic voice all his own. Yes, of course, he mixed the learnèd with the popular in ways that vex the tidy-minded, but so did Mahler and Bartók. Viewed without envy or doctrinal animus, “Jeremiah” and the Serenade sit very comfortably in this exalted company—at least in performances as good as these.

Gilbert is not to everyone’s taste, but few conductors are better at integrating mixed genres, and last night it seemed he could do no wrong. Every note was perfectly in place, every rhythm brilliantly articulated, and every transition beautifully effected. Arrivals, whether abrupt or delicate, felt inevitable and exactly right. Tempi were just right:  everything seemed to happen spontaneously, in the most natural way, and when swing was called for, there was swing—sass, too. Sometimes it was hard to sit still.

Joshua Bell with the New York Philharmonic

Joshua Bell with the New York Philharmonic; photo: Jennifer Taylor.

Bell always plays beautifully, but he sometimes gives the impression of miming feelings that the rest of his performance does not quite convey. None of that last night: he played like a man possessed, so caught up in the Serenade that by the end of it he had one foot up in the air, and it seemed entirely possible that the other might follow it. Joe Cocker came to mind, which only seemed right and proper. The duets with concertmaster Frank Huang and principal cellist Carter Brey were thrilling.

And then there was “Bernstein’s Philharmonic” itself. Like Bernstein, the Philharmonic is not everyone’s cup of tea. They can be loud, they can be steely, they can push too hard, and they play in a hall that notoriously intensifies all their worst characteristics. But here’s the thing: they sound like New York, and anything else would be a shvindl. They are also capable of great, tender beauty, as they showed over and over again last night, especially in the Serenade’s glorious adagio and in the slow, painful wind-down that brought “Jeremiah” to a heart-stopping conclusion. Bernstein was often ridiculed for his political strivings, but in this performance Jeremiah’s unheeded warning, the merry slide to Hell that ensued, and the final lamentation over a city “that was great among nations, and princess among the provinces”—the latter keened with oracular force by Kelley O’Connor—felt like prophecy indeed, and the long, stunned silence that followed spoke for itself.

Amen, Brother Leonard.  Happy birthday, and thank you.




Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival with The New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on October 25, 2017 (repeated October 26-31). Alan Gilbert, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin; Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano.

ROUKENS Boundless (Homage to L.B.)

BERNSTEIN Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion

BERNSTEIN Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah

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Cover: Violinist Joshua Bell with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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