Here begins “Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival”, honoring Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic’s music director from 1958 to 1969. The programs (shared between Alan Gilbert and Leonard Slatkin) will include his three Symphonies, and here the Serenade with Joshua Bell, preceded by thirty-five-year-old Dutchman Joey Roukens’s Boundless, written to complement it. This tribute, influenced by two of Bernstein’s piano pieces as well as his affection for jazz, uses the same scoring as Serenade (strings, harp, percussion), its three connected movements marked ‘Manically’, ‘Glacially’ and ‘Propulsively’. The outer sections feature syncopated rhythms, while the slow, shimmering middle one is the most interesting, its pace so slow as to challenge us to perceive the harp’s melody as a recognizable tune as the strings sustain tremolos for an eerie atmosphere.
Bernstein, on commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, completed Serenade in 1954, connecting its five movements with speeches in praise of Eros (the God of love) at that eponymous gathering of philosophers in ancient Greece. Joshua Bell performed with spectacular technique and great expressiveness, and the required members of the Philharmonic were also on top form under an incisive Gilbert, now a guest following his time as music director.
Bell opened in gorgeous terms (Phaedrus’s lyrical oration) and then engaged in delightful interplay with the ensemble, contrasted with a lilting dolce tune. Bell brought out the jocose character of the next two movements (respectively Aristophanes and Eryximachus) and the highpoint was the succeeding Adagio that represents Agathon, the host of the Symposium, a tender song. In the final movement, a sometimes-jazzy rondo – beginning with cellist Carter Brey in an impassioned duet with Bell – the clangorous percussion and agitated strings reflect the interruption of Socrates’s speech by the drunken Alcibiades.
Gilbert gave ‘Jeremiah’ Symphony (1942) a stirring reading, drawing fine playing. Each of the three movements relates to the Old Testament seer. ‘Prophecy’ suggests the intensity of Jeremiah’s preaching, with notable contributions here from English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon, as well as brass and low strings; the energetic ‘Profanation’ depicts the corruption against which he inveighed; and ‘Lamentation’ sets a Hebrew text mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, Kelley O’Connor giving a highly moving account of Jeremiah’s woeful words.