All-Leonard Bernstein program far from monotonous

January 23, 1996|By Jonathan Palevsky | Jonathan Palevsky,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Leonard Bernstein was a unique figure in American music. He has been dead for five years, and there's no sign that anyone will take his place.

He achieved tremendous success in all three of his vocations: performer, composer and conductor. Bernstein was also able to impart his message through the medium of television and became America's musical media guru and national spokesman for the arts. Also, his scandalous exploits and colorful lifestyle allowed us mere mortals the delight of living vicariously through him.

Today, we must evaluate Bernstein differently, as he is no longer able to be an advocate for his scores. I must confess that the prospect of an entire evening of Bernstein's music did not thrill me. I was concerned that it would all sound like variations on "West Side Story," and that Bernstein's enormous percussion sections would result in a splitting headache by evening's end.

I need not have been concerned -- Bernstein's music is fundamentally eclectic and there's tremendous variety in his scores.

There was nothing overwhelmingly serious on Friday's program by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but the composer's charm and incredible orchestral craft carried the day.

That David Zinman and the BSO have great feeling for this music was apparent from the boisterous opening notes of the "Candide Overture" to those last dying sighs of the "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story." The orchestra played like a well-oiled machine, and the brass and especially the percussion sections seemed to have more fun than should be allowed at classical music concerts.

Sandwiched between these wild symphonic extravaganzas was Bernstein's "Serenade for Violin and Orchestra." Written in 1953 and 1954, the piece is a depiction of Plato's Symposium, in which a group of philosophers expounds on various ideas concerning love.

Violinist Hilary Hahn, now 16, did a fine job of expressing all the various moods of the work -- never losing the whole for the sum of its parts.

Ms. Hahn has a fine, though not enormous, sound and more musicianship than one would expect at this point in her career. She plays sensitively and intelligently.

The "Divertimento for Orchestra," written in 1980 in celebration of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's centennial, shows Bernstein's light-hearted side. The divertimento is an 18th century form usually written for outdoor performance.

The work is full of wit and clever inside jokes, and the BSO pulled it off nicely.

The program finished with the "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story," an orchestral tour de force played with all the verve the piece demands. There could have been a little more lyricism in certain sections, but on the whole it was more than satisfying.

If you missed last weekend's BSO concerts, worry not -- the orchestra is planning to record a Bernstein compact disc.

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