Happy 90th B-day, Bernstein!

To start ringing in the occasion, Marin Alsop (pictured left) led the BSO in a rousing take on Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah, Symphony No. 1. After that, she followed it up with Mahler’s first Symphony, affectionately named Titan. In case you think Bernstein was nothing but a show pony for Broadway, think again.

We got Prophecy, Profanation, and a Lamentation from the biblical seer: Jeremiah. – as sung by lovely mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor (pictured far right). First off, Marin cemented us in the context of the work with her “common man” charm; she likened the demise of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians to our present day. The Profanation movement, she said — with the BSO backing her with fierce musical flourish — was like our “ bankers passing off those bad loans.”

Yes, “Jerusalem has grievously sinned,” lamented Ms. O’Connor in a throaty voice that could still test the high register. My off-the-cuff comparison is a mournful chorale of Gorecki meets a rhapsodic Gershwin. Marin got a big, bold sound outta her players – prompting Mr. Szeto and I to comment that the horn section was looking up this year.

Now, Bernstein, back in his NY Philharmonic days, was the great champion of Gustav Mahler. So, fittingly, Marin offered us Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Titan premiered back in 1889, when Gustav was only 29, receiving tepid applause and scattered boos. Thus did the program notes overflatter us with the warning: “Before we start feeling smug about our superiority to those benighted audiences 100 years ago…think what they were used to hearing: Brahms, Saint-Saeins, and Dvorak.” Not to worry, our Strathmore hall erupted as the players stood, their night’s labors at end.

The D-major piece was not my usual Gustav: lilting, whimsical, even jaunty – excepting the opening tensions provided by the strings. It’s said to have been based on a love affair – either with a soprano or the wife of some Leipzig big-shot. Of course, we were not robbed of the usual Mahler funerary – the D-minor turn graced us before a big climax. (Some moments in the horn sections caused us to reconsider our earlier statement, but we’ll cross our fingers for next time.)

Certainly a lot of boom for your buck. In an acoustic gem (Ed note: visual gem too!) of a hall like Strathmore, that’s all you need to grab big applause.

Ready yourself for some more Bernstein. This was just the warm-up. Marin and the BSO are working up Bernstein’s gargantuan Mass. We’re talking 250 players, dancers and singers. Get your tickets now for Oct 16-18, 24-26.

If you want Strathmore’s lush surround sound, the D.C. Metro’s Red Line can make it happen. Grosvenor-Strathmore is your stop.

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One Response to “Happy 90th B-day, Bernstein!”

  1. Erik K. says:

    I’ve never thought Bernstein was a show pony, and the reason isn’t the Mass. In fact, it’s his Broadway. Growing up in a place where Led Zeppelin was the most far-out music you’d ever hear, the occassional TV broadcasts of West Side Story utterly woke up my ears to syncopation, harmony, motif, contrasting rhythms and those passionate and inventive lyrics. To this day, as much as ever, West Side Story is sacred to me, something that called to me and (at risk of seeming melodramatic) saved me. It’d still put WSS far over La Boheme. Maybe it’s just the memory of what it meant back then, watching it with my cool aunt who could name all the actors, but it’s never going to dislodge from my mind and heart, I’m sure, as long as I live. Or maybe I just like show ponies.

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