BSO, Nelsons kick off season with Bernstein birthday bash

September 23, 2017 at 12:51 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Frederica von Stade and Julia Bullock perform with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Friday night's season-opening Leonard Bernstein gala. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Frederica von Stade and Julia Bullock perform with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Friday night’s season-opening Leonard Bernstein gala. Photo: Michael Blanchard

Centennial celebrations are a popular marketing tool for many musical organizations that provide the chance to explore works that don’t usually find their way onto regular season programs. Such events often come and go with little fanfare beyond promotional materials. 

But this season may be a little different, particularly for American orchestras, as many ensembles will celebrate the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, an organization that shared a close relationship with the conductor-composer in his lifetime, will offer several concerts this season that will explore his music. The season-long festivities got off to a grand start in the BSO’s season-opening concert Friday evening at Symphony Hall, where Andris Nelsons led a zesty all-Bernstein program.

Two of the works heard on the hour-and-a-half concert have special connections to the BSO. Divertimento was written to celebrate the orchestra’s centennial in the 1980-81 season. In it, Bernstein wove themes from two notes, B and C, which stand for “Boston” and “Centennial.” The work is a classic example of Bernstein’s style, with movements that explore Latin dance music and jazz. There’s also a nod to the twelve-tone method in the short movement “Sphinxes.”

Nelsons drew playing of excitement and commitment. The opening phrases, a riff on the fanfare from the overture to Candide, offered a rousing start to the piece. The brasses in the “Samba” movement rang clearly through the hall, and the “Blues” movement spotlighted trombonist Toby Oft and trumpeter Thomas Siders in jazzy duets.

There are both tender and humorous sides to this music, namely in the “Waltz,” where the principal cellist floated a silver-laced theme.  The final movement, a march entitled “The BSO Forever,” recalled the hilarity of Bernstein’s Slava!

Halil, a work Bernstein composed for flute and string orchestra, was the discovery of the evening. It’s no stranger to the BSO, as the orchestra offered its American premiere in Tanglewood in 1981 with the composer conducting.

The piece is another of the handful of Bernstein works that deal with the twelve-tone method. In some passages the music is dark and brooding, with the soloist called upon to perform pointillistic phrases and bend notes for breathy sonorities.

But there are moments of stirring lyricism at the heart of this work that speak to the legacy of the piece’s subject, an Israeli flutist named Yadin Tenenbaum who was killed in the Sinai in 1973.

The soloist Friday evening was principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe. Her playing was colorful and heartwarming, especially in the lyrical sections of the 17-minute piece. In the jazzy sections, she gave her passages a sidewinding groove. In the cadenza, where the twelve-tone writing creeps back into the piece, Rowe tossed off her lines with dexterity.

The other soloists Friday night were mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who served as the evening’s host, and soprano Julia Bullock, who made her BSO debut.

Bullock’s star is currently on the rise as she has performed a wide range of roles at the San Francisco Opera, Festival Aix-en-Provence, and Ojai Festival in the past season. Her voice rings clearly and brightly in her upper register. Yet her lower range was sometimes lost in the orchestral textures in Bernstein’s “A Julia de Burgos” from Songfest. In the Gershwinesque “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town, balances fared better, and her singing took on a touch of darkness. Bullock’s most affecting performance came in “It Must Be So” from Candide, where she delivered lines of soft radiance.

With members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, von Stade offered a charming rendition of the Old Lady’s Tango from Candide. Bullock and von Stade’s voices joined in sounds of soft glow in “Neverland” from Peter Pan.

The closer was Bernstein’s popular Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Nelsons led the orchestra in a performance that had bite and urgency in the “Prologue” and “Rumble” and prayerful reverence in the familiar strains of “Somewhere.” “Mambo” was a treat as the orchestra played with the bold power of a Latin dance band. In “Cool,” the basses and percussion kept the music moving at a steady groove. The shimmering chords of the Finale evaporated into halo effects that resonated in the hall. And with that, the season-long Bernstein celebration was underway.

Andris Nelsons will lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in symphonies by Haydn and Mahler 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200. 

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