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Weekend Music Review

Spirited All-Bernstein Program

October 19, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

In this season of his 80th birthday, Leonard Bernstein still looms large over the American musical landscape. There has not been, since the day of his death eight years ago, a break in the steady stream of reissues of his recordings. Biographies and remembrances, too, keep coming. On Oct. 28, PBS will air a new "American Masters" documentary on him.

But his aura can't last forever; his memory will eventually fade unless his music survives. The famous shows--"West Side Story," "On the Town"--have developed sure staying power. Every orchestra plays the "Candide" Overture. But what of the rest: the epic religious concert works; the troubled stage works, "Mass" and "A Quiet Place"; the brighter, jazzier instrumental pieces; the late, more questing scores, "Songfest," "Dybbuk," Concerto for Orchestra? A surprising amount of Bernstein's most serious music remains little performed and even rare on recording.

The Pasadena Symphony had few answers about the spiritual ambition or the experiments in the Bernstein program that opened its season Saturday at the Civic Auditorium. It did not seek out the whole man, instead focusing on the splashier, secular, instrumentally virtuosic side of Bernstein's music. (Indeed, the program book didn't even bother with Bernstein's dates, although Saturday was but three days after the eighth anniversary of his death and not quite two months after the 80th birthday.) It did contain a couple of rarities--opening with the minute-long "Shivaree" and concluding with the lightweight Divertimento--but they are occasional, celebratory works. In between were two mainstays: the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and the Serenade, which is for solo violin, strings and harp.

And yet the force of Bernstein's personality was so strong that an evening of Bernstein in his life-of-the-party mode can be very captivating. Nor is it fully possible to separate Bernstein's many facets. The "West Side Story" dances may begin with insouciant finger-snapping from conductor and players, but it ends with "Somewhere" transformed in spiritual grandeur. Serenade, a study in love inspired by Plato's "Symposium," is surely meant to seduce, but in so many ways--sweetly (with sentimental song), erotically (with jazz) and mentally (with fugue)--the listener can't help but surrender.

"Shivaree," a loud blast from two small brass ensembles at opposite ends of the stage, was meant to be played in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Divertimento, written during a sallow year off from conducting in 1979, celebrated the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 100th anniversary with lightweight dances, but ones full of clever in jokes.

The Pasadena Symphony is well suited to this music. Many of the players are accomplished studio musicians; they understand the utter Americanism of Bernstein's music. After 15 years under Jorge Mester, they also have been molded into a capable ensemble with quick reflexes. The performances were consistently bright, rhythmically vivid. Mester is not sentimental (as Bernstein was); he has, however, an acute ear for the interesting detail and a very lively beat. Yet even these excellent players seemed challenged to the limit of their capacities. One sensed that another rehearsal might have provided a useful security blanket.

The violin soloist in Serenade was Robert McDuffie, who recorded it 10 years ago with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. He took a chance Saturday, and spoke to the audience about the piece before performing it. It was a personable introduction, and the playing was beautiful. He has become a warmer, richer, finer fiddler over the decade. He also juggled a broken-string incident with acrobatic flair; violins were passed back and forth between soloist and orchestra, but the musical line was never broken. That is just the kind of thing Bernstein loved.

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