Leonard Bernstein – A Celebration

Divertimento for Orchestra
Symphony No.1 (Jeremiah)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances

Margaret McDonald (mezzo-soprano)

Lifei Huang (violin)

Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra
Stephen Threlfall

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 24 October, 2008
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Leonard Bernstein. ©Pierre Voslinsky Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein OfficeThis last August, Leonard Bernstein would have celebrated his 90th-birthday, doubtless feted across the world, but his death in 1990 at the age of 72 removed one of the most brilliantly-gifted, and certainly one of the most colourful, musicians of the 20th-century: a charismatic conductor, very gifted pianist, author and educationalist, and – perhaps most importantly of all – a composer whose music, since his death, has come to be heard more and more than it ever was during his lifetime.

This awakening of interest in Bernstein’s music is more than a posthumous rehabilitation, for it could hardly be considered a part of the standard repertoire before his death, often dismissed as manifestations of a musical magpie, borrowing here and there from other composers to make a myriad polyglot language that could rarely be described as ‘original’ – not that ‘originality’ should invariably form part of every composer’s make-up. But behind those half-remembered gestures and turns of phrase, those aspects of brash orchestration, reminiscent of others, we have gradually come to realise that Bernstein as a composer was a more significant, more relevant, figure than was ever granted to him during his lifetime. This is a very remarkable thing, for after a composer’s death their music almost invariably goes into decline in terms of performance and therefore the public’s perception (witness, for example, Michael Tippett), until something or other reawakens our interest.

“Leonard Bernstein – a Celebration” was the title of a pair of identical concerts given on consecutive days in Manchester and London to honour this undoubtedly great musician, part of a virtual two-week Manchester-based festival of Bernstein’s music. The London concert was astonishingly impressive; the students of Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester – the largest and arguably the best specialist Music School in the United Kingdom – made up the superb orchestra, not merely technically beyond reproach, but shot through with that innate musical understanding that is the mark of genuine artistry. The conducting of Stephen Threlfall, Director of Music at Chetham’s, was deeply impressive, technically splendid and able to draw the finest responses from the musicians (on this showing, one could hardly call them ‘students’) under his control.

The opening item, the late (1980) Divertimento (written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra), was not only brilliantly played throughout but also full of those revelatory moments when Bernstein, guying his own reputation, quotes from other, well-known music – including an uproarious (in the context) ‘lift’ from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, alongside allusions to Copland, Gershwin, Shostakovich, Mahler and Sousa.

Stephen ThrelfallBernstein’s First Symphony, “Jeremiah”, with mezzo-soprano in the finale, is a really fine score – more amazing for a 24-year-old – a work that even his detractors during his lifetime would more often than not agree showed his compositional qualities in the concert hall at their most compelling and original. This was given a performance of deep commitment and revelatory understanding, with Margaret McDonald delivering her part with a moving, not to say unique, sensitivity in this profoundly original work.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto is another work that has, in the past ten or fifteen years, come to be accepted as the great masterpiece that it is, disabusing those who still imagine that the refashioning of themes which the composer had utilised in other contexts in some ways debars the work from serious discussion – do we ignore Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven’s symphonies for doing similar things? Nor is it realised – how can it be? – by those disabusers, that in this work Korngold solved a compositional problem bedevilling composers for centuries. Lifei Huang, playing from memory, gave an absolutely stunning account of the solo part, filling Cadogan Hall with her richly expressive tone.

Finally, the “West Side Story” Symphonic Dances – certainly far more than an orchestral ‘selection’ from the show. In this genuinely symphonic guise, as with Korngold’s use of earlier music in his Violin Concerto, some of best songs are not included, and the music in this version is, in terms of the show’s narrative, out of sequence. No – this is a genuine concert item, in many ways more a real ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ than Bernstein’s so-called later piece. The performance was staggeringly good; this School of Music is a genuine seat of learning and our thanks are due to all concerned for the opportunity to hear, in the Nation’s capital, the very best of British musical education – in many ways, so callously ignored for too long by our government’s ‘education’ policies, which, for example, enable young people to ‘qualify’ in music without being able to read a note of it.

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