Boreyko and Gluzman Excel in Bernstein’s Serenade

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Shostakovich: Vadim Gluzman (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Andrey Boreyko (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 22.2.2018. (HS)

Bernstein — Divertimento; Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium)

Shostakovich — Symphony No.5 in D minor

Andrey Boreyko’s conducting assignment with the San Francisco Symphony most likely opened a few eyes. The Russian-born chief conductor of the National Orchestra of Belgium and the Naples (Florida) Philharmonic took on two lesser-heard, quintessentially American pieces by Leonard Bernstein, and a powerful 20th-century symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich.

You would think Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony would lie in Boreyko’s wheelhouse, and it did. But Bernstein? As it turned out, Bernstein was no problem either, even as Russian-born Vadim Gluzman, no less, delivered a searching and idiomatic account of the solo violin part in the Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), a concerto in all but name.

Boreyko seemed right at home in Bernstein’s Divertimento, which opened Thursday night’s concert in Davies Symphony Hall. Written in 1980 for the Boston Symphony’s 100th anniversary, the piece gleams with bonhomie and clever musical ideas, such as a turkey trot that limps between three and four beats to the measure.

Conductor and orchestra seemed to enjoy the contrast between European tropes (Elizabethan fanfares and an offbeat Viennese waltz—the latter in 7 beats, rather than three) and American vernacular music (turkey trot, samba and blues, plus a march finale that brilliantly sends up Sousa). Communication with the orchestra was patently clear, as they caught the broad rhythmic gestures and brash sound.

Gluzman was mesmerizing to watch in the Serenade. Even when he was not playing — and he was idiomatic and often ravishing — his face and body reflected how intently he was listening, bopping to the rhythms, and turning to watch soloists in the orchestra carry the melody. His articulation of the extensive violin line hit all the right beats. The ecstasy of the opening ‘Phaedrus’ morphed into a dancelike Allegro and a rollicking Presto.

Boreyko tread a fine line in Shostakovich’s Fifth, a powerful 50 minutes of music that moves from unease to a rather equivocal triumph. The road is hardly without curves and bumps. The rousing finale can and should feel forced. This conductor achieved all that by applying polish and sheen to the sound palette, and taking slower tempos leading up the big climax, creating a sense of grudging acceptance.

Steely-eyed determination underlaid the stentorian opening measures, which led to a reflective feel as the music softened against a gently pulsing rhythm. After reaching some craggy peaks, Boreyko coaxed the most gentle dichotomy out of the final minor chords and on the celesta, Robin Sutherland in rising major scales.

The Scherzo could not have been more caustic and sarcastic, and the central Largo spun out gorgeous sonorities. Boreyko let the delicate moments infuse the air with their beauty.

With its raucous opening measures, the finale settled into the main themes, with just enough artificiality to drive home the message that all this joyousness is not quite real. The orchestra showed admirable precision, but Boreyko’s tempos made it feel ever-so-slightly ponderous. What did come through loud and clear: the notion that things were much more ominous than the score might seem to be on the surface.

Harvey Steiman

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