New York Philharmonic/Santtu-Matias Rouvali  – Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Esther Yoo plays Bernstein’s Serenade

Bernstein
Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’)

Strauss
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

Esther Yoo (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Santtu-Matias Rouvali


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 10 February, 2024
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

The program opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, a concerto-like piece inspired by Plato’s philosophical text, Symposium. Baiba Skride was to have been the soloist, but her withdrawal brought in Esther Yoo. Composed in 1954, the fanciful five-part workdepicts notable men – Aristophanes and Socrates among them – delivering speeches on the nature of love at a 4th-century BC drinking party – plus the general Alcibiades and a bunch of drunken revelers who crash the gathering in the jazz-tinged final movement. In addition to the violin, the score employs a harp, strings, and percussion. The music features extremes of dynamics and virtuosic passages alternating with more lyrical moments. Rife with aching harmonies typical of many 20th-century works, it comes off as more a depiction of modern life than as a conversation among ancient philosophers. The solo part is demanding, but Yoo’s playing was never loud or flashy. A more bravura interpretation might have caught greater spontaneity of Plato’s wordy soirée, but Yoo’s singing tone and lyricism were often mesmerizing, especially in her captivating account of the Adagio fourth section, ‘Agathon’part of a considered performance that created color when needed, notably in the second-movement duet with bells and in the duo with Carter Brey’s cello in the Finale. Rouvali and the Philharmonic were supportive collaborators throughout.

After a few words to about how happy she, a local girl from New Jersey, was to be making her NY Philharmonic debut, Yoo launched into a beguiling rendition of Henri Vieuxtemps’s flamboyant Souvenir d’Amérique (Variations Burlesques on ‘Yankee Doodle’).

The second half was taken up by another piece with philosophical roots if decidedly different in mood: Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony that unfolds in an expansive single movement relating the events ina daylong trek up and down an Alpine mountain. Rouvali’s reading effectively conveyed many of the detailed scenes in Strauss’s colorful imagery. ‘The Ascent’ came off well, with the theme signaling the climbing party’s departure sounding vigorous, and the off-stage horn calls suggesting another hunting party suitably evocative. The woodwinds’ representations of bird-calls in ‘Entering the Forest’ and ‘On the Alpine Pasture’ were particularly vibrant, and the string and harp glissandos picturing a water sprite beneath a rainbow in ‘Apparition’ were aptly fantastic. The big climaxes were well-balanced and exciting, in particular the ‘Thunder and Tempest’ episode with the wind machine and thunder sheet not overly loud. But while there were some enchanting moments, the episodic structure failed to coalesce into a completely convincing whole, lacking the majesty and conviction of a truly great interpretation.

This concert was preceded by ones on February 8, 11 & 13

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