Classical music listeners tend to feel they're in good hands when the nationality of the repertoire roughly coincides with that of the conductor. So you listened especially closely to Symphony in C music director Stilian Kirov's pre-performance observations about the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 on Saturday: Though he's Bulgarian and the music is Czech, the Eastern Europe proximity was close enough that he could state with some authority that the brass writing wasn't about war, but dance. Hmmm.
In the more-than-solid concert at the Gordon Theater on the Rutgers University campus in Camden, the Dvorak favorite worked as symphonic architecture, which was most important. Every movement built well, accommodating the composer's occasional digressions but keeping them on a short leash. It's also nice that string tremolos suggested nocturnal mystery, and, yes, the dance rhythms had a kind of purpose that reflected where, by whom, and to what purpose they were employed. The dance-not-war idea was fundamental, though, because dance is about coming together and war is anything but. Fused with the well-harnessed energy of the orchestra's graduate-level and post-graduate players, the music's lyricism surged.
So does that mean Kirov and German/Italian guest violinist Augustin Hadelich were at a disadvantage with ultra-American Leonard Bernstein? No. This is where the nationalism theory happily falls apart. Bernstein's 1954 Serenade after Plato's Symposium has usually fared best in foreign hands. Isaac Stern, for starters, premiered but seemed not to connect with this romp with each of its five movements named after a Greek philosopher but heralding Bernstein's score for Broadway's Candide. Alternately exuberant and soulful, the piece may well be underestimated by American players who are comfortable with its idiom but not its tricky rhythms.
Hadelich, Kirov, and the orchestra did not quite apprehend the first movement with tempos that seemed more correct than buoyant. From there on, everybody entered each movement's distinct emotional state, especially in the "Agathon" adagio movement, which Hadelich played with the kind of warm, radiant tone and concentration that has established him as one of the top violinists of his generation.
Symphony in C's annual composer competition cites yet-to-be-established composers, and this year's winner, Duke University doctoral student Scott Lee, has written a crowd-pleaser. Titled Vicious Circles, the multi-episode piece chases and builds on itself with the minimalist intricacy of Michael Torke, but with dramatically horrific interruptions of Christopher Rouse. Early on, the descriptive implications of the title were left behind and he was just writing colorful, engaging music, much the way Plato's Symposium was just the starting point for Bernstein. Or maybe not even that. I once asked Bernstein's manager why there was so much literary scaffolding around his pieces.
"Oh, he just did that for you guys," Harry Kraut said, referring to critics. "Really, he was just writing music." Amen.