For Leonard Bernstein’s centennial year, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has offered a full-day exploration of Bernstein’s compositions, from his chamber music and songs to his most elaborate symphonic works. The finale featured three of Bernstein’s most ambitious works for full orchestra and soloists. Though nominally themed around the works of the great philosophers, this programme instead offered a chance to see Bernstein at his witty and theatrical best.

Vadim Gluzman performs Bernstein’s <i>Serenade</i> with the BBC Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
Vadim Gluzman performs Bernstein’s Serenade with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

There was certainly nothing philosophical about the BBCSO and conductor David Charles Abell’s rendition of the overture from Candide, which opened the concert with a literal bang. In addition to his classical credentials, Abell is a noted interpreter of musical theatre – this was evident in the swift pacing and brassy sound. Indeed, the BBCSO brass was on particularly fine form, adopting an appropriately New York big band sound and clearly having the time of their lives in the raucous finale. The fast tempo resulted in a few blips in the woodwind solos, and the string runs were not quite as crystalline clear as they should be, but these did not detract from an exciting concert opener. 

The orchestra was joined by Vadim Gluzman for Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, a violin concerto in all but name. The work consists of five movements, each based on a particular speaker expounding upon the theme of love. The work shows Bernstein at his most eloquent, and despite being fiendishly demanding for the soloist, is marked by its lyricism and grace. Gluzman’s muscular tone initially seemed an uncomfortable fit for the work, but by the second movement had fully relaxed into the piece. His remarkable technique easily encompassed all of the virtuosic demands of the part, including the cleanest scherzo I have ever encountered. The orgiastic finale was performed with rhythmic vitality from both soloist and orchestra, with Gluzman literally leaping around the stage at times. Best of all, however, was the fourth movement Adagio, based on Agathon’s speech on Eros’ youth and beauty; the movement is perhaps Bernstein’s most sensual work, and displayed Gluzman’s silvery upper register and imperceptible bow changes at its finest. 

Fleur Barron, J’Nai Bridges and Sophia Burgos perform Bernstein’s <i>Songfest</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Fleur Barron, J’Nai Bridges and Sophia Burgos perform Bernstein’s Songfest
© BBC | Mark Allan

The highlight of the concert, however, was a rare opportunity to hear Songfest, a symphonic song cycle featuring six soloists. Lasting over forty minutes, the elaborate work is almost oratorio-like in scale and features three sextets, one trio, two duets and a number of solos. The thirteen poems span 300 years of American poetry, ranging from Anne Bradstreet to e.e. cummings. The poems were also selected to capture the multicultural spirit of America, and explore the minority perspectives of black, Hispanic, gay and female poets. The sheer eclecticism of the source material also reflects in the musical style, which ranges from Ives-esque atonal brevity to Mahlerian tragedy. Though this range of styles shows off Bernstein’s astounding compositional skill across a variety of styles, the work as a whole felt slightly sprawling and incoherent as a whole. 

Despite this, the orchestra and soloists gave as fine performance as could be imagined, led by Abell’s confident, nuanced conducting. The cast of young soloists were uniformly excellent, but particularly excellent were mezzo sopranos J’Nai Bridges and Fleur Barron whose voices contrasted wonderfully in the ensembles, Bridges all silky lyricism and Barron with an astoundingly gusty lower register, as well as Nicky Spence in a hilariously characterful rendition of Gregory Corso’s Zizi’s Lament. All six soloists, however, were at their charismatic best in their encore of West Side Story’s “America”, performed with gusto and humour by soloists and orchestra.