Review: Boston Ballet’s ‘Fancy Free’ Highlights an All-Bernstein Night at Tanglewood
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, August 21, 2018
In 1940, then 22-year-old Leonard Bernstein, the musical wunderkind now being celebrated for his inimitable significance in American classical music, as well as Broadway musical theatre, attended the inaugural season of the Berkshire Music Center. Throughout Bernstein’s career, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and what would come to be called Tanglewood, continued to be a touchstone. This connection is beautifully explored in a display of photographs and memorabilia at Tanglewood’s Visitor Center this summer, as Bernstein’s centennial is celebrated in a summer long festival. In an all-Bernstein concert under the baton of Andris Nelsons, the current music director of the BSO, this summer’s Bernstein immersion almost approached its apotheosis.
Bernstein created some of the most enduring Broadway musicals in the repertoire, and his first was On the Town. Made famous in a heavily adapted film starring Frank Sinatra, and recently revived in its original form in a critically acclaimed production directed by John Rando, and conducted by James Moore, at the Lyric Theatre in New York, this amalgamation of the high and low, of artful ballet and popular vaudeville, was a collaboration between composer Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and book writer and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The show, which produced a number of song standards (“New York, New York,” “Lonely Town,” “Some Other Time”) was itself inspired by, and a creative extension of, a ballet Bernstein had written with Robbins called Fancy Free. Depicting three World War II sailors on shore leave in New York City looking for love, Fancy Free was recreated here with a small set on the left side of the stage, and dancers from the Boston Ballet performing the original Robbins choreography.
The orchestra knew just what to do with this score, which On the Town so closely echoes (although not a note is common between the two, so far as I can tell), particularly in its frenetic depictions of busy New York City street life. Sight-lines in the Koussevitsky Music Shed are not ideal for the audience to view dancers unobstructed (heads in front of me were constantly shifting to get a peek, and there was too much talk of “…if they had projected it onto screens…” heard at intermission), but the Boston Ballet’s recreation of the original ballet was a highlight of the evening.
As the three sailors, Patric Palkens, Isaac Akriba, and Paul Craig nailed the universal yearnings and individual personality quirks depicted in the kinetic storytelling of Robbins’s ballet. Bernstein’s score, composed when he was 26 years old, begins with the sound of a jukebox. Quickly, four loud snare drum hits take us to Times Square, and eventually into the alleyways, the recesses of emotional life. The commonly excerpted “Danzon” hints at popular song form, in a manner that thumbs its nose at a dogmatic musical academia, still in its infancy, that would soon to take over. This was the BSO’s first complete performance of the score of Fancy Free. I would argue that the piece belongs on the shelf alongside Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring — not as emotionally rewarding, perhaps, but the work of a young genius bringing his own voice to the uniquely American language of his elder colleague.
Following intermission, the BSO played a work Bernstein composed for them in 1980 on the occasion of their centennial anniversary. The Divertimento for Orchestra, a series of eight featherweight movements — bagatelles, as the composer described them in program notes — is a humorous suite of short pieces tailor-suited to the ambiance of a summer concert. The opening movement, “Sennets and Tuckets” had rhythmic bombast, but challenged the highest trumpet in the opening phrases, which state the unifying motif B-C (Boston Centennial). The second movement, a gently flowing “Waltz” in 5/8 (paying tribute to Bernstein teacher Serge Koussevisky’s fondness of Tchaikovsky’s similar) had lovely ebbs and flows, and expressive duets between string soloists. But throughout, the intonation from the first violins felt insecure, especially in the dainty concluding gesture.
The exotic “Mazurka,” with its double-reed choir and harp colors, again found the orchestra conversing lyrically, but with spotty intonation. The seventh movement, a brief “Samba” gives the orchestra something to dig into, and they sounded like they were having fun. The joking “Turkey Trot” finds LB at his most cliché, but it works. On Saturday, the BSO’s woodwinds played their solo lines winsomely.
A fleeting, mysterious movement called “Sphinxes,” was suspenseful, segueing directly into “Blues,” a particularly strong example of an American composer’s imitation of jazz and blues. Grit and vulgarity, the outer fringes of an orchestra’s range; Bernstein was ahead of his time. The concluding “March: ‘The BSO Forever’,” brings Bernstein’s sense of humor to the fore, full of surprises and humorous effects.
Throughout this effervescent, light-as-air piece, the BSO relished at how it is attuned to their strengths. However, I find myself distracted by the maestro’s habit of clutching the podium rail with his left hand, conducting only with his right. Perhaps, he needs to do so, but it projects an air of slouching, even indifference.
The evening continued with the 1954 Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion, a violin concerto featuring Latvian violinist Baiba Skride; a five movement work for solo violin based on the philosophical themes of Plato. Regrettably, Bernstein’s austere, intellectual concerto didn’t make an impressive vehicle for Skride’s talents. Her sound seemed tense, and she struggled with intonation in double-stops, and when high on the E string.
The opening passage was enough of a misfire that I wished she had stopped to recover her bearings and started again. It was a relief when the full string section entered, momentarily taking the focus away. The entire first movement suffered from off-kilter intonation, rendering Bernstein’s expressive ideas tasting rather bitter.
The less obscure harmonic palette of the second movement, Allegretto should have proved easier, but again Skribe appeared to struggle. The fourth movement, a delicate Adagio, faired better, with shimmering strings, Skride seeming more comfortable in the highest ranges of her fiddle. The final movement, “Molto tenuto — Allegro motto vivace,” rallied to celebrate Bernstein’s ironic approach to melody and rhythm. I wonder, though, if the order of the program was ideal; the more crowd-pleasing Divertimento might have left the audience with more bounce in their step.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra in an All-Bernstein Program in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lennox, MA on August 18, 2018. Music Director and Conductor, Andris Nelsons; Violinist Baiba Skride; the Boston Ballet.
BERNSTEIN Fancy Free
BERNSTEIN Divertimento for Orchestra
BERNSTEIN Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”), for Violin and Orchestra
Cover: Isaac Akiba (center) and members of the Boston Ballet in ‘Fancy Free’ with the BSO at Tanglewood; photo: Hilary Scott.