The BBC Philharmonic’s 2015-16 season of concerts subtitled “American Adventure” at the Bridgewater Hall celebrates the life and music of Leonard Bernstein who died on 14 October 1990. In the second of the series, the orchestra and its Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena performed two works that Bernstein conducted in his last concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1990 and a composition by Bernstein himself. This concert was dedicated to the late Katy Jones who created the BBC’s Ten Pieces project and was closely associated with the BBC Philharmonic.

Tasmin Little © Benjamin Ealovega
Tasmin Little
© Benjamin Ealovega

If Peter Grimes is Benjamin Britten’s most performed opera, the Four Sea Interludes, which the composer extracted from it for concert use, must be one of his most performed orchestral works. Many composers have been inspired by the sea but few have depicted its elemental force like Britten. The four movements (Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight and Storm) have key roles in the opera but are reordered here to create a satisfying orchestral work that is independent of its origins in the theatre. With a large orchestra Britten creates a wide range of colours and atmospheres, sometimes calm, sometimes wild and threatening, carefully brought out by conductor and orchestra. We could almost feel the swell of the waves and see the sunlight sparkling on the water.

The second work in this evening’s concert was a much less familiar work. Bernstein’s Serenade for Strings, Harp, Percussion and Solo Violin after Plato’s Symposium would surely be better known if the composer had entitled it Violin Concerto, for that is what it is. Tasmin Little, known for the breadth of her repertoire, was the excellent soloist. The Serenade, which was first performed in 1954, is in five movements each of which is named after a character in Plato’s Symposium – a banquet at which the guests talk about different aspects of love. Although Bernstein said that there was no literal programme for the work, he gave a fairly detailed explanation of how each movement related to the characters in Plato and the subject of their discussions. However, just as there is no need to know the opera Peter Grimes to appreciate and enjoy the Sea Interludes, the Serenade does not require an understanding of Plato.

We had a large body of strings with harp and seven percussionists (including timpani) but, as in the Britten, the percussionists were used sparingly. Unsurprisingly, given Bernstein’s wide range of interests and enthusiasms, there were hints of various musical styles: Broadway musicals, 19th century violin concertos, Viennese waltzes, jazz and Stravinsky, but they were all brought together in a coherent whole.

The work began with a beautiful violin solo; Ms Little soon had the audience hanging on every note. The strings joined in and then the percussion – one of the few occasions when all the percussion played together. The second movement was a lyrical intermezzo for violin and strings alone; the third a brief scherzo. The fourth movement was striking for the build-up of intensity by strings and timpani, a solo cadenza and a lovely moment when the soloist soared above the strings and harp in a serene melody. The finale started slowly and calmly but the serious discussion was soon interrupted by drunken revellers (with an ear-catching plucked jazz-style double bass), leading to an exuberant conclusion. Orchestra, conductor and especially the soloist made this performance of Bernstein’s Serenade a great experience; I hope to hear this major work many more times.

The other work that Leonard Bernstein conducted in his final concert quarter of a century ago was Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major and this formed the second half of tonight’s concert. For all its familiarity, Beethoven’s Seventh can still offer up surprises and is susceptible to remarkably varied interpretations by conductors. Juanjo Mena is steeped in the Central European tradition (which is not to detract from his mastery of Spanish and British –or indeed American – music) and his evident love of this work was communicated to orchestra and audience.

Despite its reputation as the “apotheosis of the dance” to use Wagner’s oft-repeated phrase, the symphony starts with portentous chords punctuating a mysterious string and wind theme which makes it uncertain where the symphony is heading. The second movement contains much that is reflective rather than energetic. The dance elements come to the fore later in the work. One feature of this performance was the contrast been tempos: Mena took the second movement more slowly than is sometimes the case; the difference between the presto and trio sections of the third movement was highlighted and the final movement was dazzlingly fast. Juanjo Mena smiled and almost danced on the podium which was perfectly in keeping with this most positive of symphonies.