ANAM: A Bernstein Celebration

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Published: 31st May, 2018

The Australian National Academy of Music offered a winning combination for its recent concert, A Bernstein Celebration. Drawing on the wealth of American composition, mostly by Leonard Bernstein, the orchestra again showed itself to be packed with potential soloists, and the conductor had immense empathy for the music and the young musicians he directed.

Being Venezuelan born, José Luis Gomez also had the look:  South American conductors are the flavour of the month, thanks in some measure to Il Sistemo (and, to a lesser degree, to the off-beat television series Mozart in the Jungle, whose hero was said to be based on Dudamel, director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

In any case, Gomez did not need to win a popularity contest based on his looks or apparent suitability for the role. He earned respect entirely through his management of this demanding program particularly but not exclusively the items by Bernstein. It was however one of the great man’s contemporaries, Alberto Ginastero, whose music opened the concert. This was the hypnotically beautiful Variaciones Concertantes op. 23,perhaps a a surprising choice for a concert that was to have such fire, as it opened with a solo cello played with an assured sensitivity, echoed in several other variations. However, contrasts soon emerged and the piece proved to be not only a showcase for nine specific instruments and different sections of the orchestra, but also a study in contrasts in the styles of the opening interlude and ten variations that followed.

it was easy to be swept along by such music, which was apparently played with such assurance, but it also was an ideal introduction to the exceptional talent of the ANAM orchestra. My only wish is that those players with solo roles could be credited, particularly in this case the cellist who led the section in the first part of the concert. (When I later enquired ANAM kindly obliged with the name, Eliza Sdraulig, but she deserved more recognition  on the night, as did the other section leaders.)

The remaining item was by Bernstein, his Divertimento for Orchestra which followed a similar pattern to the Ginasatera thus further justifying the programming decision to lead off with the variations.

However, Bernstein’s divertimenti are significantly different in being apparently unconnected with each other, except that all are about dance or movement in some way (or non-movement where it comes to Sphinxes!)  This work shone the spotlight on different instruments but as with the previous work also showed the integration of the orchestra under Gomez, quoted in the program as saying:

“It is incredibly infectious, in an amazing way, how Leonard Bernstein’s music would easily make you dance. I think his music, apart from being so wonderfully and perfectly crafted, is straight forward and honest in every single moment that connects so easily and can really make you dance!”

The ANAM orchestra certainly made this music dance, from the slow Blues to the rhythmic Samba and the recognizable and amusing Turkey Trot. Each section of the orchestra appeared to have its particular strength highlighted, but the overall effect was of a smooth and sophisticated ensemble piece.

After interval, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was a dramatic performance by brass and percussion, indicating that now we had arrived at the fireworks of the concert! It was a very surprising choice for this to be followed immediately by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, but the orchestra did justice to this subdued, hypnotically beautiful work. The program notes suggested that its place in the concert was due to the Adagio being a mainstay of Bernstein’s repertoire, which he recorded twice.

However, music from Candide, by Bernstein himself, satisfied the expectations of the audience as a true “Bernstein celebration,” being vital and dramatic.  First came the Overture, well known as an often-played concert piece, then the orchestral suite, comprising eight numbers, each of them a showpiece for the orchestra and an occasion for pride that ANAM has such a jewel in its crown – with a conductor who knows how to bring out the very best in every performer!


Suzanne Yanko attended this single performance of “A Bernstein Celebration” at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 27, 2018.