Prom 18: 3rd August 2001

Leonard Bernstein
Serenade, after Plato’s Symposium
West Side Story (arr. Brohn for violin and orchestra: UK premiere)

Joshua Bell (violin)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier

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Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 3 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This programme was clearly designed in two distinct halves. The first required acute hearing for the detailed sounds of two composers delving into the philosophical language of Paracelsus and Plato; the second required no such faculties. In fact, the second half, with West Side Story, could have been a warm-up for the evening’s second Prom, which featured “three of the hottest talents on the British jazz scene” – but that’s a different story.

Arcana is from a very fruitful period for Varèse. Following the success of Hyperprism (1923) and Intégrales (1925), Paris-born Varèse moved to New York where he began Arcana. Scored for very large orchestra (142 players), the work juxtaposes tonal harmony upon the driving rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. For Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic this was evidently the work that required the most attention. Sadly, this appeared to be translated into trepidation with the opening minutes ragged, the music rhythmically ill defined. Things did settle though.

Bernstein composed Serenade and West Side Story at around the same time; stylistically they could not be more different. Serenade’s five movements parallel Plato’s dialogue on the nature of love – if this is love I can understand why the ancient Greeks, as well as Bernstein, had confused sexual practices. Scored for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion, the sound world of Serenade bears a striking similarity to Bartok’s string works, most notably his Divertimento of 1939. Joshua Bell’s performance was well articulated, though it lacked a feeling of occasion – though this ’lacking’ may have been contributed to by my seating position.

West Side Story fared much better, perhaps helped by the return of the BBC Philharmonic’s full complement. Given the relatively difficult first half was about to give way to a more popular, if rather short at just over thirty minutes, second, the Royal Albert Hall took on a more relaxed feel. Veteran arranger, William David Brohn, as the programme note pointed out is better known by his work than his name. His list of musical-theatre credits include Miss Saigon, Crazy for You and the revival of Lionel Bart’s Oliver.

West Side Story Suite started life for orchestra. When Joshua Bell wanted something for his recently released Bernstein album on Sony Classical (SK 89358), collaboration between the two musicians seemed inevitable. The Suite is much more than a conventional group of famous tunes tenuously linked together and uses material from the musical as glue to stick together the main musical focus of ’Something’s coming’, ’I feel pretty’, ’Maria’, ’Tonight’, ’America’ and, after a cadenza written by Joshua Bell, ’Somewhere’.

At first I was hoping to hear a new slant on the melodies deeply ingrained in my musical psyche since watching, in my youth, the 1961 film version. Something different? Radically revised orchestration? Perhaps symphonic metamorphosis? In the end I was strangely relieved to hear the same old songs, with the same old harmonies that Bernstein, or perhaps Sid Ramin (who was one of Bernstein’s orchestrators), had originally conceived.

What is it about Boléro that makes audiences roar with enthusiasm? As a violist there are few pieces that fill me with such dread as Ravel’s mono-chord. Yes, there are Haydn’s early quartets, but for the triumph of boredom over performer, Boléro is hard to beat. Ravel himself was also dismissive of what is perhaps his most famous work. He told Arthur Honegger, “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it”. Perhaps he was right but I’ll bet it helped pay the rent.

Tortelier ran onto the platform, baton in hand, almost starting before reaching the rostrum, and certainly before applause had subsided. This quasi-panic to get the piece over and done with made the opening solos feel rushed which left Tortelier the task of relaxing the tempo over the next five minutes; the entry of the violins brought stability. From then on Tortelier’s work appeared to be done, so he took to a bit of ’arm-chair conducting’, weaving the endless melody like candyfloss on a stick.

Conducting this piece one-handed, Tortelier looked constricted. He is an animated conductor, so saving himself for Bolero’s only key-change, at the end, was obviously a struggle; nonetheless it did look good. Arms a-flaring, the horns raged, the tam-tam blasted and the audience roared; Boléro, as is customary these days, left the audience in a buoyant mood. The viola section?Well they just packed up – another notch on the tedium-stick of performance.

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