|Stefan Asbury brings the spookiness.|
Rare as it is to open a review with remarks on oral program notes from the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, I'm doing so not to question the inclusion of "Serenade" in a Halloween concert. But I wish that as an advocate for it, and to set up a context for the beautiful rendition Jennifer Frautschi was about to offer as guest soloist (the program will be repeated at 5:30 today), Asbury had spoken more to the point.
All four pieces on a well-chosen program have a narrative informing them, though the one behind Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" might pose a challenge to present to children, of whom there were many in Friday's audience. Still, Asbury might have urged the adults to go over the pieces in the second half at intermission. There is a fascinating match of orchestral inspiration and story in both Dvorak's "The Noonday Witch" and behind the "Mandarin" suite that concludes the program.
Bernstein's "Serenade" characterizes the speaking participants in the Platonic dialogue called "Symposium" or "The Banquet," a lively celebration of love — at the summit, in the delicate phrase of some translations, "man-boy love." That might pose another challenge of communication to tender ears, but it can easily be glossed over. The personalities are vivid, but of course it's the clash of viewpoints that, as in any Platonic dialogue, is essential. The inebriated revels are buoyantly summed up in the finale.
As part of a Halloween weekend presentation, the partygoers at Agathon's house can properly be seen as spirits haunting the theme of love. Bernstein himself enjoyed frequent indulgence in parties, though
|Violinist Jennifer Frautschi|
that can't explain why "Serenade" may be his best work for orchestra. There are foreshadowings of "West Side Story" (1957) in some of the music, and in the Socrates-focused opening of the last movement, hints of the tortured musings of the Celebrant in "Mass" (1971).
The outsized Bernstein personality is here effectively harnessed as well as energized. This is a piece of dramatic suppleness and considerable lyrical impact, and Frautschi, working with sympathetic support from the podium, offered a charming, witty account of the solo role.
Opening Friday's concert was a spirited reading of "Night on Bald Mountain," the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration of Mussorgsky's evocation from a Gogol short story of a mythical gathering on a peak variously identified with Kyiv and Slovenia. Especially fascinating was the patience Asbury and the orchestra laid upon the long coda of the work, in which the witches' revels finally subside with the arrival of dawn.
Atmosphere is nearly the whole story there. What stands out about Dvorak's sojourn into witch folklore is its seamless blend of atmosphere with a specific, horrifying story of a boy's abduction from his family as a witch's payback for an unkept promise to deliver the misbehaving child. In the struggle, the naughty kid, despite all the parental love, dies. The witch's roar of triumph, as riveting in its own way as the finale of the Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" or, on a smaller scale, the devil in Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," was spine-chilling in Friday's performance. As the ISO played it, the whole piece was so well-knit as to convey the impression that the musicians really believed in it. That's essential to the play-acting many people are inspired to take part in over the Halloween celebration.
Ratcheting up this factor with the benefits of modernism allowing for more extremities of expressiveness is the Bartok piece that followed. The complete music for the iconoclastic work is also worth hearing, but the suite has all that's necessary to convey the Hungarian composer's intent to shock his contemporaries. Friday's performance proved that shocking quality is still intact a century after the "Mandarin" premiere. Asbury's intense communication with the ISO offered episode after episode of fully committed playing, as ferocious as all get-out when necessary. Snarling trombones in glissando can sum up the season nearly by themselves.