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From out of the darkness

Leon Botstein gets the usually somber Jerusalem Symphony to show a brighter side at Royce Hall.

October 30, 2008|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Leon Botstein is a can-do conductor eager to get a bright sound out of almost any orchestra, even the moody Jerusalem Symphony. So Tuesday night, Botstein -- who juggles a music directorship in the Israeli capital with his other day jobs as president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra -- attempted to turn on the lights when he brought his intensely dark-hued Jerusalem band to Royce Hall for a UCLA Live concert. Considerable energy was required.

This is an orchestra born of optimism. Founded 70 years ago as a radio ensemble in what was then Palestine, it helped provide a sense of cultural identity to a Jewish state seeking independence from British rule. But it is also an orchestra that knows depression. Not only are many of its players refugees, but the ensemble, which has recently come out of a financial crisis, is underdog to the glitzier, internationally known Israel Philharmonic.

A historian by training, Botstein began Tuesday with history -- Erich Walter Sternberg's "The Twelve Tribes of Israel," a milestone in Israeli orchestral music. It was written in 1938 by a German Zionist composer who immigrated to Palestine in 1931 and who created a style that mixed the thick sonorities of Hindemith, the tortured counterpoint of Max Reger and the lush late Romanticism of Richard Strauss with Jewish themes. Sternberg also happened to be one of the founders of the Israel Philharmonic, but this rarity isn't exactly standard fare with the Jerusalem ensemble's conservative competition.

Each of Jacob's sons gets a variation on a theme that is supposed to represent the commonality of belief, making this a kind of Jewish "Enigma Variations." I didn't particularly hear the personality of tribes in what is essentially expressive German music, especially as it winds up with a big, let's-build-a-country fugue.

But a certain optimism can be heard in engaging scales that rush upward at moments when the brass is grave. Woodpeckerish percussion is the score's most peculiar aspect, which could, perhaps, be interpreted as nature and/or the sound of construction.

On this tour, Botstein is traveling with two programs that mainly represent the American diaspora. One includes two European composers who came to Hollywood (Ernst Toch and Miklos Rozsa). Curiously, L.A. got the other program -- of East Coast second-generation emigre Jewish composers. American violinist Robert McDuffie was the soloist in Leonard Bernstein's Serenade. The long evening ended with Copland's Third Symphony.

The Serenade -- a sort of violin concerto for soloist, strings and percussion -- is secular Bernstein, a song of love inspired by Plato's "Symposium." Each of the five movements represents a different philosopher and aspect of love. Bernstein begins with the erotic, gets sentimental (but not sloppy sentimental) and finishes with an orgy. This is a wonderful score, written in 1954, and more than almost any piece Bernstein wrote, it hints at his many sides.

McDuffie proved a robust soloist. Lightness of tone or approach is not an option facing an orchestra with so vigorous a brass section, winds that give everything the tinge of full-bodied red wine and strings happiest when never asked to sound happy. McDuffie dug in. The orchestra dug in. The cellos and basses often dominated. The violas were sometimes stronger than the violins. Jazzy bits sounded more Russian than American.

Yet this was, in its way, a winning performance, a portrait of Bernstein as tormented as he was bewitched by his erotic impulses. McDuffie and the orchestra kept plunging into the deep dark, and Botstein kept them from drowning.

A gloomy Copland Third is not possible. Writing at the end of World War II, Copland celebrated America, triumphant if also a little sad. He came close to writing the Great American Symphony, but he didn't quite make it and wound up instead with a very good American symphony. Botstein, nevertheless, went for as much greatness as he could get.

This orchestra really does not like too much wattage. The violins, in particular, could get edgy when asked to shine, and intonation also suffered. The Scherzo was not tidy. But the power of the playing was thrilling. No sound is too big for Botstein, who pushed the players out of their glum comfort zone into the realm of American resilience. The Finale is a magnification of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." Here it blew away the blues.


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