Pulling out those threadbare scores of Dances from West Side Story or a gambol through the sunny Overture to Candide seems a paltry tribute to the genius of Leonard Bernstein, but offering his “Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium)” fills the bill and then some to suitably honor the 100th anniversary of his birth. Under the astute baton of guest conductor Fabien Gabel, accomplished Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma and the San Diego Symphony gave a rapturous account of Bernstein’s violin concerto, written for no less a violinist than Isaac Stern in memory of the composer’s early mentor, Boston Symphony Music Director Serge Koussevitsky.
More adventurous and less constrained to the shape of the traditional concerto than, say, Samuel Barber’s frequently programmed 1940 Violin Concerto, Bernstein’s philosophical, five-movement “Serenade” remains a rara avis. But from her pristine yet shimmering, mysterious solo that opened the concerto, Lamsma made a persuasive case for this Bernstein work from 1954. Her lithe yet boldly shaped phrasing propelled the composer’s copious themes, especially his glowing slow cantilenas in the second and fourth movements. Not many violinists are as compelling as Lamsma playing a stratospheric melody pianissimo, and her spectacular extended duo with Principal Cello Yao Zhao crowned the final movement with the most unexpected cadenza in the entire violin concerto catalogue.
With understated but unmistakable authority on the podium, Gabel deftly led the orchestra through Bernstein’s quickly changing moods and textures, giving precise direction with uncommon ease and probing the depths of this complex but rewarding concerto. For the “Serenade” and the opening Bernstein Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free, Gabel drew a taut, transparent ensemble from the orchestra, 180 degrees from the opulent, Middle European sonority he constructed for the Richard Strauss Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59, on the concert’s second half.
Gabel serves as Music Director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, a post he took up in 2012 following the 13-year tenure of a musician most San Diego Symphony patrons should recall—Yoav Talmi.
If the composer who assembled the Suite from Strauss’s most successful opera Der Rosenkavalier remains a mystery, there is no doubt about the swashbuckling appeal of this sumptuous orchestral excursion. With unfailing cooperation from the orchestra, Gabel shamelessly but effectively displayed Strauss’s extravagant emotional gamut of the opera’s oversized personalities, from the elegantly resigned aristocratic Marschallin to the bumptious pretender Baron Ochs. I cannot recall the San Diego Symphony producing a richer, more burnished full orchestra ensemble than we experienced Friday, May 4, under Gabel’s masterful direction of this Strauss Suite. For my taste, he found just the right amount of give and take in the Viennese waltzes, the characteristically affected rubato that so defines that decadent musical genre. Among the many splendid solos from first chair players, I would be remiss if I did not hail Principal Horn Benjamin Jaber’s gorgeous, immaculately tuned traversal of the opening fanfare, the leitmotif that so completely captures the heart of Strauss’s opera.
Gabel closed his program with ten short movements from “Gaîté parisienne,” Manuel Rosenthal’s flashy pastiche of Offenbach dances and operetta morsels. These frothy yet cleanly etched and smartly detailed vignettes proved to be too much of a good thing, not unlike loading up your plate with too many attractive items from the dessert buffet. A wiser course would have been to offer a few movements from “Gaîté parisienne” to open the program’s second half and then playing the Strauss Suite, sending the Copley Symphony Hall patrons out with the glorious Strauss themes rather than Offenbach’s slick ditties.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony on Friday, May 4, 2018, at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego. It will be repeated on Sunday, May 6, in the same venue at 2:00 p.m.