22 Dec 2017

Bernstein’s 100th Birthday

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Critically acclaimed conductor, Keith Lockhart has led the Boston Pops for two decades and is in his seventh season as Principal conductor for the BBC Concert Orchestra. In his HSO debut, he will lead a program that celebrates leonard Bernstein’s 100th anniversary year and his remarkable passion and genius.

Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade translates some of Plato’s dramatic retelling into music. His biographer Peter Gradenwitz likens the work to a solo concerto in the form of a symphonic suite. Bernstein casts the violinist as chief speaker. Unaccompanied violin opens the work, establishing a prominent profile in the opening measures of the middle movements. Not until the finale (Socrates:  Alcibiades) do we hear a conventional orchestral exposition preceding the soloist’s entrance, as in most concertos.

Bernstein composed this piece for the great American violinist Isaac Stern, on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. He had planned to write a concerto for Stern to introduce at the Venice Festival in September 1954. After reading Plato’s Symposium, he changed his concept of the new piece. Bernstein’s film score for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront also dates from 1954. In spirit, however, Serenade more closely resembles Bernstein’s First Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety” (1947-49). Like that earlier work, Serenade derives from a literary model, with the solo instrumentalist as protagonist. Both compositions stretch accepted definitions of genre, whether symphony or concerto. It is one of the few Bernstein works that omits woodwinds, brass, and piano, yet includes the harp. The percussion writing is highly virtuosic, particularly in the fifth movement. The composer considered this to be one of his best pieces.

The legendary Broadway partners Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II commissioned Copland to write his second opera, The Tender Land, in 1953, in honor of the League of American Composers’ 30th anniversary. The premiere took place at New York’s City Center Theatre in April 1954. Using a libretto based on James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the opera focused on the farming culture of the American Midwest: a perfect backdrop for Copland’s attractive, folksy style. Although critics had a mixed reaction to the opera, they praised the music. Copland was savvy enough to extract a symphonic suite for orchestral performance in 1958.

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is intimate: the way a dinner party with six people allows for more in-depth conversation than a large buffet reception with fifty guests. We know that Beethoven had a soft spot for this symphony. He seems to have composed it with comparative ease. Ordinarily he labored long and hard, with extensive sketches for his major compositions, yet this one flowed relatively easily from his pen. When friends told Beethoven that the Viennese public did not like the Eighth Symphony so much as the Seventh, he snapped, “That’s because it’s so much better.”

Parts of this copy courtesy of Laurie Shulman ©2017

Keith Lockhart, conductor

Robert McDuffie, violin

Copland – Suite from The Tender Land

Bernstein – Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”

Beethoven – Symphony No. 8


Tickets: Bernstein’s 100th Birthday, Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, January 28 at 4:00 pm. Tickets range from $34 – $92, and are available online, or by calling Blaisdell Box Office at 768-5252 for live agent hit “0”, visiting the Blaisdell box office. Performance is held at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

Student & Military Discounts: $15 student rush tickets and $20 active-duty military tickets are available beginning Monday, January 22, with a valid ID (must purchase in person).