To music lovers around the world, the great Leonard Bernstein, who died almost one month ago, might best be remembered as conductor, performer or composer. To many of those who attended "A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, he was all three -- certainly to none more so than Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra. Bernstein's association with the orchestra spanned nearly 40 years, so it was fitting that last night's program highlighted milestones in that relationship.
Bernstein's "Slava! (A Political Overture)," Three Meditations for Cello and Orchestra From "Mass," and the Symphonic Suite from "On the Waterfront" have particular meaning for Rostropovich and the NSO; the first two were premiered by said conductor and orchestra when Rostropovich first took the podium as music director in 1977.
The music was probably played as brilliantly then, but one doubts it could have been played with more poignancy.
All three are magnificent orchestrations, showing Bernstein at his best: a melodist with a heart of a giant and an orchestral palette.
"Slava!," derived in large part from Bernstein's musical "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," is sheer orchestral fireworks from beginning to end: plenty of brass, rollicking percussion and 7/8 rhythms. Upbeat, breezy and full of elan, the NSO caught the spirit from the start and never let it go.
The Symphonic Suite was equally superb with its menacingly aggressive percussion and strings in the Presto Barbaro, its unfaltering lyricism in the third section and its heart-wrenching conclusion.
One could not have wished for a more moving performance of the Three Meditations, here performed with Gary Hoffman as solo cellist. Bernstein, who was commissioned to write "Mass" for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, may have seen the Catholic rite as full of contradiction -- possibly spiritual, certainly musical. And Hoffman exploited the range of emotions from anguish to sorrow to joy with telling contrast. The NSO was nothing short of spellbinding. From the beautiful gliding strings at the start to the pizzicato cello and cymbal clashes in the middle, Rostropovich and his artists struck exactly the right emotional note.
The only flaws of the evening came in the performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, and then only in the first movement. Somehow, the rhythmic drive was lost in the all-too-popular Allegro con Brio and the NSO could only rise to a perfunctory performance.
In stunning contrast, the NSO gave one of the finest readings of the Andante con Moto that this reviewer has ever heard. Nuance of line and phrase was there in every breath and the magic was shared by all.
The program will be repeated tomorrow and Tuesday nights.