BSO delivers bracing Bernstein program with Benedetti, Alsop

Some anniversaries in the classical music world go by barely noticed. You are not likely to happen upon too many programs marking, say, the centennials this year of such composers as Gottfried von Einem, Frank Wigglesworth, Godfey Ridout or George Rochberg.

But you can't miss the attention generated by the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor and pianist who possessed seemingly super-human talents. This milestone is being celebrated far, wide and often.


Locally, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra chimed in over the weekend with an all-Bernstein program that showcased some of his most familiar work composed for the musical theater, as well as one of his most substantive scores for the concert stage.

There was room, too, for three fun pieces written on the occasion of Bernstein's 70th birthday by eight notable composers and premiered at the Tanglewood summer music festival in Massachusetts, two years before his death in 1990.


The orchestral miniatures have in common some sort of variation on "New York, New York," the big tune from Bernstein's musical "On the Town." Of course, a refrain of "Happy Birthday" slips in, too.

BSO music director selected three of these 1988 birthday salutes to open her program.

Luciano Berio's "For Lenny" is a swift mash-up of classical music's greatest hits. John Corigliano does cheeky stuff in "For Lenny, with love — and candor," referencing the other Big Apple song, the one composed by John Kander and famously bellowed by Sinatra ("If you can make it there...").

The contribution by John Williams — "To Lenny! To Lenny!" — shows off a great deal of cleverness, wit and enthusiasm. It's the most substantive and endearing of the three and, on Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, inspired a particularly vivacious performance.

Bernstein's 1954 Serenade, a concerto for violin and orchestra in all but name, was inspired by Plato's "Symposium." Had Bernstein written it after being more open about his own sexuality, it might have been an even more intriguing work (there's a lot of same-sex talk in the "Symposium").

Still, the Serenade is fascinating, imaginative, eventful. And you don't have to think Platonic thoughts at all.

As Bernstein friend and biographer Humphrey Burton put it, "The work can also be perceived as a portrait of Bernstein himself: grand and noble in the first movement, childlike in the second, boisterous and playful in the third, serenely calm and tender in the fourth, a doom-laden prophet and then a jazzy iconoclast in the finale."

That's how I heard it on Friday, when the superb, Scottish-born violinist Nicola Benedetti, in her BSO debut, delivered the solo part with a sweet, but penetrating, tone and a keen sense of the music's rich character.


Alsop provided smooth partnering and drew taut, energized playing from the orchestra. The piece will be repeated in August, again with Benedetti, when the BSO makes its Edinburgh Festival debut.

The Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town" (also heading to Scotland with the orchestra) would be better separated than played back to back, since they share so many things in terms of style and rhythm.

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Still, Alsop succeeded in bringing out the distinctive character of each, while again generating a dynamic response from the BSO. This orchestra knows how to swing, not a sure thing in the classical realm, and that ability could be savored throughout. Lots of impassioned solos from within the ensemble added to the enjoyment.

For an encore, Alsop led a brilliant, breathless and just plain fun romp through Bernstein's "Candide" Overture.

It has been a notable spring for for the BSO. A few weeks ago, the orchestra poured on the expressive heat for principal guest conductor Markus Stenz in Mahler's Symphony No. 1. The night I heard it, there were a surprising number of errant notes or entrances in the brass, but the playing overall had a terrific edge.

I wish Stenz had shown more flexibility of tempo, more nuance of phrasing in the scherzo (the music's poetic charms were held back by the conductor's metronomic approach). But he shaped the rest of the score with considerable sensitivity and a flair for momentum, not to mention keen concern for the fullest range of dynamics.


The conductor's affinity for propulsion and proportion also helped make the dull, repetitive portions (which is to say most) of Beethoven's Triple Concerto less troublesome than usual. In that effort, Stenz could count on supple support from the orchestra and lyrical playing from a sturdy trio of soloists: concertmaster Jonathan Carney, principal cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski and guest pianist Ryo Yanagitani.