Divertimento 1980 | 15 mins
We think of Leonard Bernstein as the quintessential New Yorker, but he grew up just outside Boston and throughout his life maintained close ties with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For that ensemble’s centennial in 1980, Bernstein composed his Divertimento, an eight-movement, lighthearted “diversion.” From two notes, B (for “Boston”) and C (for “Centennial”), Bernstein generates a series of high-spirited miniatures. LISTEN FOR: The Divertimento opens with the exuberant Sennets and Tuckets (instrumental flourishes from the Elizabethan theater). The Waltz, for strings alone, shows Bernstein at his most wistful; at the same time it reveals a sense of humor. Next comes a dark-toned Mazurka for double-reed woodwinds (oboes, English horn, bassoons, and contrabassoon) plus harp, along with an echo of the lone oboe from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth. The Samba is witty and punchy, the Turkey Trot a toe-tapping dance that might have been encountered in the early years of the twentieth century. Sphinxes, the shortest movement, is also the gravest and, true to its title, the most mysterious. The Blues movement, for brass and percussion, seems more a blues parody than a genuine, brokenhearted blues. The concluding March spends about a minute slowly searching for a way to go, then breaks into a strut. It ends the work in the boisterous spirit of the opening, bringing us full circle.
Serenade 1954 | 30 mins
As a composer, Bernstein was exuberant, warm, generous in gesture, range, and imagination, and blessed with an abundant and unforced gift. The Serenade shows him at his most inventive and attractive. It is a hands-across-the-ocean, hands-across-the-centuries work that only an American would dare. Equally—and delightfully—American is the fearless juxtaposition of “high” and “low” styles. The Serenade, Bernstein wrote resulted from “a rereading of Plato’s charming dialogue, The Symposium. There is, however, no literal program, and the music, like the dialogue, is a series of related statements in praise of love.”
Symphony No. 5 in D minor 1937 | 50 mins
Shostakovich was one of music’s greatest reporters on the human condition. He was an essential composer, a man who could not commit himself to heroism nor to moral and intellectual slavery, one who functioned in a society tyrannically demanding of its artists. It is hard to think of another composer whose work is so intensely affected by life—his own, but also that of the world in whisch and for which he wrote. When that world first heard Shostakovich’s Fifth, it was taken as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.” The symphony begins at once forceful and questioning—“conservative” does not mean “conventional.” The scherzo and its vein of grotesque humor is an oasis between the intensely serious first and third movements. With the Largo we meet a new warmth of sound followed by remarkable transformations. The brass dominate the finale. This movement expresses triumph. “The theme of my symphony,” Shostakovich said, “is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences as the center of the composition. . . . In the finale the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living.”
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.