By John J. Puccio
With the current album, Maestro Bernard and company present four pieces celebrating America by American composers. The first up is the familiar but always welcome Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). It’s an arrangement for orchestra that Barber took from the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony premiered it in 1938. The thing about the Adagio is that although that tempo marking means “slow and graceful,” there is a good deal of latitude about how a conductor actually handles it. The accompanying booklet mentions, for instance, that Toscanini got through the piece in a little over seven minutes, and that subsequent conductors have taken as long as nine or ten minutes. Maestro Bernard manages a tidy 8:35, neither too hurried nor too relaxed. It is as lovely a rendition as any I’ve heard.
The third item is also by Copland, the Clarinet Concerto, written between 1947-49 on a commission from bandleader and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. On the present recording the soloist is Jon Manasse. Bernard leads a longingly pensive, wistfully reflective interpretation of the work, with a beautifully measured response from Manasse.
The album concludes with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein premiered the musical West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. The Symphonic Dances is a suite in nine movements of music derived from the show, a suite the composer prepared in 1960. Like the rest of the program, it’s familiar territory, but it’s freshened by Maestro Bernard’s enthusiastic approach. He seems genuinely engaged with the music, its story, and its people, and he brings the whole thing to life with his vigorous, animated direction.
Audio engineers Joel Watts, Brian Losch, and Jennifer Nulsen recorded the music at the DiMenna Center for the Performing Arts, New York City in November 2019. Appropriate to the music, the sound is lush and full, a trifle warm and soft, but quite natural. It displays good, lifelike detail, range, and dynamics without being in any way bright, forward, or edgy. It’s remarkably easy on the ear, rewarding both the casual listener and the discerning audiophile alike.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: