Looking for Lennie
He was an optimist. We need that. He was generous in his styles, and embraced all musics that struck a chord with the public. And he yearned to reach the public—because he loved music, and no other reason.
Most of Leonard Bernstein’s compositions wear the label of musical theatre easily—opening night at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-18 season was a good example of that. A selection of occasional pieces written for the BSO (Divertimento for Orchestra), with some show tunes and novelty songs, were mixed in with some jaw-dropping beauties: the flute concerto “Halil,” and the robust Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.”
We are still looking for Lennie. The embrace of various musical styles certainly has trickled down to mainstream composition—would anyone dare boast that they were not “genre-bending” these days? But aren’t we still searching for a proselytizer for music, someone with great reputation whose enthusiasm for the genre transcends their talents…
Perhaps Dudamel. Maybe even our own Andris Nelsons, whose comments from the stage to the well-healed audience Friday evening led him comically down the wrong path. (A terrific thinker and enthusiast himself, Nelsons’s English—one of several working languages he uses that are not his native tongue—betrays him at times. Hopefully a stage mate took him aside and explained the difference between “infection” and “infectious” last night, after he robustly wished a plague on the audience and his orchestra.)
Having a centenary to revisit Bernstein’s legacy (he was born in 1918) promises for a rich season, of nostalgia if nothing else. Like Van Cliburn—in a different, but also populist, way—Bernstein represents the far-reaching positive influence that an individual can have on an art-form.
Of the music presented by the BSO, in a concert that also featured a stage appearance by brilliant mezzo Frederica von Stade (as host and sometime singer), the flute concerto “Halil,” performed by terrific BSO principal Elizabeth Rowe, certainly stood out.
Rather than transcend genres, “Halil” transcends form. It is a concerto, with an outstanding, idiosyncratic solo part. But it is also a nocturne, haunting and suggestively troubling. And its instrumentation creates a deeply moving atmosphere.
It’s a remembrance, of an Israeli flutist (Yadin Tenenbaum, killed in the Yom Kippur War in 1973). One movement, “Halil” matches its solo flute part with echoing alto flute (Elizabeth Ostling) and piccolo (Cindy Meyers), set at the back of the stage, apart from the orchestra. Cathy Basrak, sitting in the principal viola chair, also had an extended solo part, as did the harp (principal Jessica Zhou).
Its a gorgeous movement, with tonal and atonal challenges, creative percussion, and haunting interplay. A bold cadenza showed off Rowe’s technical and musical skills—at the front of the stage, for a welcome change.
The BSO next performs Saturday and Tuesday, a program that includes Haydn’s “Drumroll” symphony and Mahler’s first. Andris Nelsons conducts. bso.org; 888-266-1200.