24 November 2006

And the Finale Is .... Alcibiades!

Something light for today.

At Tanglewood last summer I heard Midori live for the first time, and was completely smitten by her interpretation of the Bruch first concerto -- especially the second movement.

So recently I began to think: had she recorded the Barber concerto, which is my favorite (with Sibelius a close second)? In doing some research on her discography, I discovered something new about ancient philosophy.

Perhaps you've heard the famous story of her stunning debut at Tanglewood, when she broke two 'E' strings, had to switch to larger violins (she was still playing a children's-size instrument) and caused Leonard Bernstein to kneel in appreciation at the performance's end. But I wonder if you know the name of the piece she was playing then. It was something I've never heard of, but it is worth giving especially here: Plato's 'Symposium' for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion, by Leonard Bernstein.

The piece, written originally for Isaac Stern in 1950, is also called simply Serenade, with the following movements:

I. Phaedrus-Pausanias: Lento and Allegro Marcato
II. Aristophanes: Allegretto
III. Eryximachus: Presto
IV. Agathon: Adagio
V. Socrates-Alcibiades: Molto tenuto and Allegro Molto Vivace

At first, when I learned of this serenade on a theme of Plato, I thought it was strange, that someone should have written programmatic music on the basis of a philosophical dialogue.

But then I thought: Isn't it unusual, rather, that more pieces of music haven't been inspired by Plato? Wouldn't a student be reading Plato according to his own mind, if he wanted to compose music inspired by Plato's writings? After all, Plato thought of creative love and human thinking as somehow unified, and he did not write dry treatises, but beautiful literature.

And then I also thought: Did Bernstein as a student at Harvard (class of '39) perhaps study Plato--to connect this to what I just been thinking about--under John Wild or Raphael Demos? We all seek to accomplish something lasting in our scholarship and teaching: Wouldn't the teacher who had inspired Bernstein have achieved just that? (Although I don't know if this is a great work and a harmonia that will long survive the death of its composer.)

In any case, here's a description of the performance from the Midori and Friends website:
Midori made the first of two recordings for Philips in 1986 (Bach/Vivaldi with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman). The second, a Paganini/Tchaikovsky pairing with the London Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin, followed in 1987. During this same period, she gave first performances with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Montreal Symphony, undertook her first European tour and made her now-legendary debut at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein conducting. The work was Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium' for Solo Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.

In the fifth movement, Midori broke the E string and was quickly passed the violin of the concertmaster, continuing to play without missing a beat. When the unthinkable happened again and she broke the E string on the concertmaster's fiddle, she took the violin of the associate concertmaster. Both borrowed instruments were different in size - and both were larger than her own instrument - yet Midori was unfazed. When she came to the end, the audience and the orchestra erupted in applause and Bernstein fell to his knees. The following day, the front page of The New York Times read, "Girl, 14, Conquers Tanglewood with 3 Violins."


Anonymous said...

Bernstein's sexuality most certainly played a role in his decision to write about Symposium. 

Posted by Henry Liao