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Composed: 1986; 1988
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo), alto flute, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (anvil, bass drum, chimes, cowbell, cymbals, suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, hand drum, snare drum, tambourine, tom-toms, wood blocks, triangle, vibraphone, and xylophone), piano, pre-recorded tape, harp, mandolin, and strings
One of Bernstein’s last works, his Concerto for Orchestra was written for the 50th anniversary of the Israel Philharmonic. It is also a nod to Béla Bartók, whose Concerto for Orchestra celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Boston Philharmonic. Like its predecessor, this piece showcases the orchestra both as a complete ensemble and as a spotlight on individual instruments and sections. Amid the pyrotechnics of highly trained virtuosos are unconventional touches, most prominently non-singing voices and the pre-recorded sounds of the shofar.
The first movement, “Free-Style Events,” begins with a bang, and (literally) shouts and whispers – from orchestra musicians who give out the number seven seven times, in reference to a passage from Leviticus: “And Thou shalt number seven Sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years….” The following, 50th, year is to be hallowed as a “jubilee year.” Marked both allegro con brio and giocoso, the entire movement careens from one section of the orchestra to the other in a series of episodes that range from ethereal to violent.
The second movement, “Mixed Doubles,” is a theme and variations, beginning with a simple declarative theme laid out by the strings before winds, led by the flute section, begin adding variations not only in color but special effects such as flutter tongue. The fourth Variation’s lively percussion gives the effect of stumbling into a late-night club, after which skittering strings push us back out into a busy street just long enough to set up a mysterious, nocturnal atmosphere by juxtaposing extremes of woodwind register. Variation seven features a two-part conversation between English horn and contrabassoon, which gradually adds other winds, punctuated with vocal-like trills and exclamations. The movement ends with a coda, a kind of mini-benediction on the musicians.
The third movement, “Diaspora Dances,” teases both ear and mind with its 18/8 time signature – a play on the Hebrew alphabet “eighteen” (“hai”) meaning “life.” Drum and cymbals encourage a jaunty syncopated tune described by Bernstein as “from the Middle East back to Central European ghettos and forward again to a New York-ish kind of jazz.” More instruments gradually join the dance circle with what he called “socio-cultural, geo-Judaic” flair.
The last movement, “Benediction,” begins with solo trumpet, joined by more brass in a stern, finger-pointing kind of episode before giving way to luminous strings and a plaintive oboe melody touched gently with harp; many listeners will find the final prayer reminiscent of the end of West Side Story.
Throughout, Bernstein’s music is contrapuntal without being abstract. Even absent the use of actual voices or vocal effects, his instrumental lines remind us why we call lines of music “voices.” The music always comes across as a conversation – one that, like its creator, is eclectic, passionate, revelatory.
Susan Key is a musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.