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Leonard Bernstein Festival 
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The Philadelphia Orchestra, in honor of Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday, is performing a four part festival commemorating his work. Last night was the premier of Week One. The orchestra played Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances" from West Side Story, and the night was bookended by Tchaikovsky's "Fantasy-Overture," from Romeo and Juliet and his symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini, which tells Francesca's story (Francesca and Paolo) from Dante's Inferno. So essentially the theme for the night was how love kills. Uplifting, eh? It actually was some very beautiful music.

Each year the orchestra puts together a couple of these themed series, and I find this work to be their most thoughtful. I am by no means knowledgeable about classical music. I attend the orchestra relatively regularly, but do not study with any discipline. Which means all of what I'm going to write here are my woefully lay opinions. Now, I know Bernstein from studying musical theater and I've always appreciated his work. But most of his time was spent in the classical genre. West Side Story is a gorgeous piece that fuses a very Americana feel with Latin influences. It has a litheness about it, a simple elegance that makes it so enjoyable, yet fun. But sitting between Tchaikovsky, even the short pieces performed last night, there's no comparison. Tchaikovsky's work has such power, the way he uses the strings and horns to speak to each other, with the flautist getting a word in here and there. It's like he teases you through the entire piece before he brings about his audacious denouement.

The Philadelphia Orchestra does a really astounding job throughout their season. You can go to see a couple different orchestral pieces each week, if you really wanted to. Plus the orchestra plays the pit for both the Philadelphia Opera Company and the Pennsylvania Ballet, this time of year. Theys some hard-working people.

I sat in what is termed the Conductor's Circle. It is on the first tier level, but arcs across the back of the stage. So in those seats, you're at the backs of the musicians, just above them, looking out over the rest of the audience. The seats are on the cheaper side because they have such an unusual perspective, but I think their some of the best in the house. You can actually feel the music vibrating your seat, as the foot of the risers sit on the stage. You also have this perspective, sitting just above the orchestra, where the bows for all the stringed instruments seem to be dancing for you. But, more importantly, you get to watch the conductor conduct. The Philadelphia Orchestra's been fortunate to call Christoph Eschenbach their own for the past five years, and he is entertaining to watch conduct. And not in that I'm-a-conductor-look-at-me way. It's obvious he is very passionate about his work, and to see him elicit the performances he does is



Fri Jan 11, 2008 1:01 pm
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I went to see the second week of the Bernstein Festival last night. The concert consisted of Bernstein's first symphony "Jeremiah"; a new piece by a Philadelphia composer, Jennifer Higdon, entitled "The Singing Rooms" (for violin, chorus and orchestra); and Schumann's Symphony 2 in C Major. The Schumann was gorgeous, absolutely stunning, and if you know Schumann I'm sure you know the piece. Peculiarly, the program noted that Schumann was battling some illness most the time that he was writing his second. Afterwards, he wrote a letter wherein he said "I wrote the C-major Symphony in December 1845 while I was still half sick, and it seems to me that one can hear this in the music." He goes on to note that the Symphony reminds him of that "dark time." I just don't hear that in the work. I'm sure the major key helps to contribute to a more affirmative feel for the music. And there are some dark moments in the Adagio, but they seem brief compared to the sweeping upbeat tone of the work as a whole. I also think Schumann's second was a nice choice for the evening, because, though it doesn't have a vocal part, a lot of the work has a very choral feel to it.

But I think I was most moved by Bernstein's "Jeremiah." It's the first time I've ever heard it performed live. I've read before that Bernstein and his father had an estranged relationship, and that Bernstein's father thought he was wasting his talent. When his father first heard Jeremiah he was so moved that Bernstein then dedicated it to his father. That sat on my mind when hearing the piece.

The symphony has three movements, and considering that it was composed in 1942 by a Jewish composer, the historical elements seem evident in the music. The first movement has an American wartime feel to it that is reminiscent of Copland's work



Fri Jan 18, 2008 11:12 am
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I forgot to add this. I just learned last week that Christoph Eschenbach, the conductor I was raving about above, is now leaving the Philadelphia Orchestra. This will be his last year. Apparently, the orchestra members couldn't get along with Eschenbach. They thought he became so engaged in the music that it was sometimes hard to follow the timing of his conducting. (This, btw, is all second hand information, not verified.) It's a shame. As I said, I don't know a lot about classical music. But I've been attending the Philadelphia Orchestra, fairly regularly, since I was in high school. I've enjoyed the orchestra these last five years under Eschenbach more than any other years.



Fri Jan 18, 2008 11:55 am
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