At the November twenty-first pre-concert talk at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Center’s Helzberg Hall, Maestro Michael Stern was asked why he included the Bernstein Serenade (1954) with the early Twentieth Century mix. He quickly quipped: “I like it and I can do whatever I want.” The five-movement piece was composed for Mr. Stern’s father, violinist, Isaac Stern, who premiered it in 1954, with Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) conducting the Israel Philharmonic in Venice.
Mr. Bernstein composed his “Serenade,” around a fantasized banquet in Plato’s “The Symposium.” Each movement is named for a character in Plato’s piece, each exploring a different aspect of love, platonic, of course. What was more apparent to the audience, was an exploration of Yiddish themes, first played slightly embellished, then expanded with jazz stylings of the Paul Whiteman era with a little New Orleans carnival thrown in. The genius is, of course, that in Bernstein’s hands it works; the meme (whether ancient Grecian writings or American-invented music genres) is irrelevant other than that it gives a point of departure.
The pathos expressed in the initial, isolated, solo violin melody (played magnificently by guest, Philippe Quint) established the context for all of the various style mixtures to follow. A few strings worked in a counter melody, the timpani then announced a tutti, and everyone joined in. The six percussionists were kept busy, indeed. Movement III reached back to the Romantic period for texture and pure movie score for the harmony, but, everything was a departure from that first, bucolic melody. Movement V, “Socrates,” was a rondo, with a recurring visit to a carnival.
The other music followed the season theme of music related to World War I. Richard Strauss’, “Dance of the Seven Veils/Salome’s Dance” (1905) Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 (1907) and Maurice Ravel’s postwar, “La valse,” (1920) which would forever alter the concept of waltz; nothing about ballrooms and crinoline. Strauss’ overture to the evening was quite shocking for its time, in harmony, gory dramatic theme, and blatant sensuality. Between the orchestra’s precise playing, and the choreographic sense of the composer, the balletic action could be visualized with littlw imagination.
Sibelius’ third symphony was completed in his new log home, about 20 miles outside of Helsinki. The contemporary reviewers congratulated Jean for the imaginative, non-derivative composing on display in this piece. It has a more pastoral feel than his second, but many of the harmonic progressions and sonority-building devices are quite within his established usage. Many composers have a recognizable sound, and borrow bits from their own and others’ works, with no criticism.
Ravel’s Valse, as mentioned, is not designed for the Friday night dance. Its initial dissonance sets a context, as did Bernstein’s contribution, of all following sounds. There are some snatches that recall 19th Century waltzes, but the dissonances quickly deny that the form will ever be that way again, after the horrific war Earth had just endured. It’s really an ironic piece, drawing the memory back to a simpler, more innocent time, but never relaxing there.
The orchestra was, as is usual, at a world-class level for the program. Maestro Stein, the professional ensemble, and the acoustics of Helzberg Hall combine for an altogether satisfying musical experience on a routine basis.
John Philip Sousa’s, “The National Game,” played a significant part of the tomfoolery after Ravel. It seems, that some level of wager required the esteemed conductor to dress strangely for this imposed encore,