A well-filled house welcomed the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra at the Lied Center Wednesday evening. With principal conductor Leon Botstein on the podium, this sizable orchestra (92 musicians) honored the Jewish Diaspora with works by American composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, and German-born (later Israeli) Erich Walter Sternberg.
Orchestra members were heard to remark favorably on the venue's acoustics, and they did seem well suited to a group of this size. And Botstein was truly the master of the moods created by this orchestra and its music. He showed an exceptional ability to draw out the emotions called for by the work, in a spirited, disciplined and economical conducting style.
The evening began with the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," followed by the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikva." The first work to follow was Sternberg's "The Twelve Tribes of Israel," a dozen variations representing the children of Jacob.
Mostly romantic in temperament, with interludes of lush strings and lyric and heroic brass, this work is reminiscent of Brahms and Richard Strauss, both living in the young Sternberg's Germany. Yet at times there are also echoes of Arnold Schoenberg, who influenced the composer's early writing.
Second on the program was Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," modeled on Plato's "Symposium," with five movements representing various speakers in that Platonic dialogue. The renowned solo violinist Robert McDuffie, playing a 1735 Guarneri violin, captivated the audience with his brilliant interpretation and his passionate attachment to the music, playing with such feeling that he could scarcely stand still.
The varied movements, each representing a discourse on the nature of love, began with a simple unaccompanied solo by McDuffie, soon joined by the orchestra. The second was a melodic impression of Aristophanes' speech on the "mythology of love."
The third, scherzo, movement rushed energetically to a rapid conclusion, providing a fine contrast for the lovely "Agathon" fourth movement. Its sense of mystery and sublimity in love make it easily a stand-alone number. McDuffie's passionate unaccompanied solo in the middle was a memorable highlight.
As the final movement began, all knew they were being addressed by an august figure as they heard the gravity, eloquence and power of the opening sequence. A charming duet followed, with McDuffie being joined by a cellist, representing the voice of Socrates quoting the priestess Diotima.
"Serenade" ends with the arrival of the drunken Alcibiades and his antic speech on love, represented by Bernstein with recognizable jazz riffs, strongly reminiscent of "West Side Story" in its rhythms, intervals and percussion.
Following the intermission, the orchestra presented Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3. Though Copland has said that "it contains no folk or popular material," the audience could recognize clear references to his "Fanfare for the Common Man," as well as the dance rhythms of his ballets.
Throughout this work, Copland uses a series of very different tone colors, at times with rich horn choruses, at others with flute and piccolo intervals, at still others with strings in a very high register, shading off into ghostly harmonics.
The evening ended with a pair of encores: LeRoy Anderson's familiar "Blue Tango," and Naomi Shemer's fluid and moving waltz anthem, "Jerusalem of Gold."