Orchestra rises to music of the Americas

Violinist Joshua Bell rose to the occasion on Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," with a fresh enthusiasm.
Violinist Joshua Bell rose to the occasion on Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," with a fresh enthusiasm. (RYAN DONNELL / Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: October 28, 2012

Music of the Americas, with its refreshing lack of foreignness, is easy to take for granted. No mental reaching across oceans, centuries, or time zones is needed to make contact with this music. It's our stuff. So it must be easy.

That's why Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, one of the most distinctive concertos of the 20th century, is so often performed badly, and why the Peruvian fusion represented by Gabriela Lena Frank's new Concertino Cusqueño - both were played Thursday by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center - was barely thinkable a few decades ago.

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

at dstearns@phillynews.com.

The program will be repeated

at 8 p.m. Saturday at the

Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org.

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