The two pieces stood together beautifully, partly because they both bring certain European composers over here. Frank's stated intention was to take the British Benjamin Britten (one of her heroes) on an imaginary tour of Peru. In the stylish performance of the Serenade by Joshua Bell and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a surprising undercurrent revealed itself: Bernstein brought Bela Bartok to Broadway with his own brand of glitzy exuberance.
Frank's piece, commissioned by the orchestra and heard in its world premiere Thursday, easily prompts a guessing game. Any given passage could be Asian, English, Shostakovich, or, in its solo use of the principal string players, an Arcangelo Corelli concerto grosso. Soon, these points of reference meld into a distinctively Frank sound world - that rocks. Knit together with a strong thematic unity, the piece jumps from event to event - from simulated Andean pan pipes to violins strummed like guitars - like Shakespeare's Puck circling the globe for just the right exotic herb. What fun!
The Bernstein piece is inspired by Plato's Symposium - each movement musically evokes a particular discourse on love - though its five-movement form, use of percussion, and restless harmonies echo Bartok, but with the helium effects of Bernstein's trademark buoyant lyricism.
Seeing violinist Bell with a music stand was actually good news: That meant he hasn't played the piece endlessly, which meant he delivered fresh interpretive responses that stood on the shoulders of all of the more standard repertoire he has played for years. Nézet-Séguin seems to have a special relationship with music on the pop/classical cusp. Every movement walked a fine line between flamboyance and vulgarity - more Bernstein's own performances.
The second half was the Brahms Symphony No. 4 reflecting Nézet-Séguin's recent Brahms preoccupation, this work showing the composer at his most structurally strict but expressively free. At times, the performance seemed to retreat into slickness; in fact, the conductor was giving himself room to build, often with more relaxed tempos than before and with a firmly escalating sense of tension. He doesn't yet enjoy the kind of spontaneity with Brahms symphonies that mark his best performances with other composers. But his Brahmsian version of the Philadelphia sound has gratifying luster without slighting the all-important interior activity.
Contact David Patrick Stearns
The program will be repeated
at 8 p.m. Saturday at the
Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org.