MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz performs the brilliant violin solo in Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.”
The Madison Symphony Orchestra closes its season at Overture Hall with a novelty and a blockbuster.
The novelty is by Leonard Bernstein, a composer close to the heart of Maestro John DeMain. Its title of “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium” obscures its character. It is a violin concerto in five movements, but each of them evokes a participant in the famous philosophical dialogue. Composed in 1954 for Itzhak Perlman, its solo part is predictably fiendish. Its thematic materials are not distinctive, and their interrelationship is not always clear. But Bernstein’s orchestral fingerprints are all over the piece. Rhythms and colors anticipate the score for West Side Story, which Bernstein finished three years later.
There really are not enough ideas in the piece to justify its 30-minute length. Bernstein should simply have forgotten about Plato’s musings on Love, and just written a straight violin concerto.
This is not at a mainstream work, and DeMain turned to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz. She certainly met the work’s demands with artistry and panache.
The Big Event is, of course, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We are so used to this work as one of the musical monuments of western civilization that we forget just how radical and innovative it really was for its day. DeMain seems to want to recapture that shocking quality by going quite beyond the conventional “monumentality” stereotype.
I was delighted by the way DeMain prevented the now-magnificent MSO strings from overwhelming the woodwinds, whose fascinating inner parts are regularly heard as integral to the textures. The dark first movement is endowed with taut power that is cumulatively electrifying. The pounding energy of the Scherzo keeps up the pressure. Against those two essays in forceful persuasion, DeMain wisely makes the third movement a full-throated expression of sublime serenity.
And then, of course, there is the revolutionary choral finale. DeMain deftly etches the famous “Joy” theme in juxtaposition with his two other motives in conveying Schiller’s poetry. His four vocal soloists (Melody Moore, Gwendolyn Brown, Eric Barry and Morris Robinson) pitch in forcefully; I particularly relished watching bass Robinson’s strong involvement. The Madison Symphony Chorus sings with splendid power, managing to overcome something of the rear-stage sound-trap of their placement, though diction does not always survive. And the orchestra is as magnificent as we might expect.
Audiences have two remaining chances to see this thrilling performance: Saturday, May 9 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, May 10 at 2:30 pm.