On Sunday, November 21st, the Orchestra of the Bronx under the baton of Bronx Opera’s Artistic Director, conductor Michael Spierman, returned to the stage, with a concert of serenades for an in-person audience. The concert was free and took place on the Lehman College campus at the Lovinger Theater. This venue is known for Bronx Opera performances, concerts, screenings, various official and college-wide events, and more, as well as the innovative programming of the arts organization, Lehman Stages. Precautions were taken to ensure the safety of the audience and performers; everyone was asked to present their IDs together with their vaccination cards to even gain access to the campus. The entire audience kept their masks on throughout the concert and intermission.
Enthusiastic about attending the concert, writer Andrea Rockower, who is also the Chair of the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts Board of Directors, said: “I think that this glorious classical music right here in the Bronx really nourishes not just our need for the arts but also our soul. Particularly during the pandemic, it fills us with a sense of life, hope, and beauty, which is something we need right now. But it’s also the quality of the presentation. These are really highly skilled musicians, and the programs are very carefully thought out and varied. It brings such joy to the community here. These concerts are free to the community; what a blessing, what an enhancement to the quality of life in the borough!”
Serenade concert – Orchestra of the Bronx instrumentalists conducted by Michael Spierman in the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College.
So, what do we really know about the serenade? Is it a love song? That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this musical genre. True, originally, it was a piece of music performed in honor of someone. The word itself comes from the Italian word serenata that derives from serenus (serene) in Latin. Its sense invokes serenity but also sera, which means evening in Italian. Characteristically, it has indeed been associated with a song of love, but it was sometimes also sung for a friend or a person of rank or on a special occasion, and, not surprisingly, often in the evenings. In the 18th century, Mozart embraced the serenade form and composed his several serenades as purely instrumental pieces. By the 19th century, the serenade metamorphosed into more concert-like pieces that were not necessarily associated with special occasions or people.
Maestro Michael Spierman and Orchestra of the Bronx members receiving enthusiastic applause.
We began Sunday’s afternoon of live music with an inventive take on the serenade by Mozart: his “Serenade for Winds and Double Bass in C minor, K. 388.” This is no mere love song. Written for winds with an added double bass, it breaks with the tradition of the “Salzburg Serenades,” like Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and those of other composers, and pushes the limits of this musical genre. This piece is an intense, sophisticated, and rather intellectual serenade—the fourth movement alone offers us a theme with no less than eight variations. Mozart himself must have loved the piece as it was later rearranged for a string quartet, and one particular phrase was reused in his famous opera Don Giovanni. The Orchestra of the Bronx instrumentalists provided a balanced integration of resonances coupled with the flexibility of traveling from a gentle dance-like lilt to animated complexity. Under the skillful guidance of Maestro Michael Spierman, the ensemble often sounded like a multivoiced human singer engaging us directly, no words needed. Which prompted Andrea Rockower to express, at the end of the piece: “Even in this, the serenade appeals to each of us personally; it’s like a musical love song to us really! We do enjoy it communally, but it also feels as though it’s just for us individually.” The contrastive nature of lyricism and vigor was also smoothly negotiated between conductor and instrumentalists.
Soprano Leslie Swanson singing the famous Serenade by Schubert accompanied by guitarist Stanley Dorn.
The feel of a personally addressed love song was certainly intensified by soprano Leslie Swanson’s rendition of Franz Schubert’s popular serenade, Ständchen: “Leise flehen meine Lieder” (Softly my songs plead). This Lied is number 4 of Schwanengesang (Swan Song), a collection of 14 songs written by Schubert at the end of his life and published after his untimely death. The longing lyrics by German poet Ludwig Rellstab, delicately and non-intrusively supported by guitarist Stanley Dorn, and sung with sensitivity and exemplary dynamics control by Swanson, created an atmosphere of intimacy, as though we were reading a letter from a loved one dwelling in a distant world but yearning to reach us—an apt and stirring choice for the times we live in. This was the first time I heard Schubert’s Schwanengesang Serenade accompanied by guitar and I found that the combination of Swanson’s subdued and nostalgic, yet palpable emotional longing acquired a certain contemporary hue through the sound of the guitar, as though it traveled across time and said to us all: “yes, we feel this longing as intensely today as they did in the 19th century. Especially as many of us are separated from loved ones.”
From intimacy to a buoyancy with somber undercurrents and rich, unexpected harmonies is where the final piece of the concert transported us. This serenade conjures up the atmosphere of Late Baroque period performances in which, in a sense, the universes of the aristocracy and the common people connected through the use of folk themes. The piece is composed in a “Slavonic” style (before the composer’s famous Slavonic Dances) and incorporates elements of Bohemian dance within it. Antonin Dvorak’s “Serenade for Winds and Low Strings in D minor, Opus 44” is not an easy work to perform, particularly if one wishes to not jar its lighter vein through abrupt interruptions by the shadowy undercurrents, but rather present the complex texture of the work as a cohesive, composite totality, while still acknowledging its unforeseen yet musically satisfying disparities. Maestro Spierman and the Orchestra of the Bronx succeeded in this masterfully, and while the entire ensemble deserves a standing ovation, special kudos go to clarinetists Monte Morgenstern and Bohdan Hilash for their mastery of dynamics give-and-take as well as for their legato and nimble staccato phrasing.
General Director of the Bronx Opera Benjamin Spierman with Andrea Rockower and Maestro Michael Spierman.
Overall, the entire performance offered us an alluring, sophisticated, and fulfilling musical experience. General Director of the Bronx Opera, Benjamin Spierman, who is also an esteemed stage director, expressed his joy at the success of the concert: “I am very happy to be back here at the Lovinger Theater with live music and an audience that is present in the room! The Bronx Opera is working its way back in terms of the full opera productions.” He is proud to announce an upcoming virtual film project presented as a live screening with a short live concert on March 20th. “This is breaking news,” he said, “the film is Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury preceded by the short concert. Then in May, The Bronx Opera will present Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, in English translation, a new updated production set as if the Roman empire existed in the present day. Many of the players from the Orchestra of the Bronx play in the Bronx Opera orchestra. The Orchestra of the Bronx is also looking forward to coming back to a live Messiah by Handel in December of 2022 presented at the Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame Playhouse. So, we’re gradually moving back into live action. We have a masked audience today; the important thing is that we’re doing live music for a live audience in a physical space.”
And isn’t the serenade a wonderful way to romance us, audience members, back? “That’s right,” answers Benjamin Spierman, “we are serenading our audiences back into the theatre and we will continue to bring them back.” His father, Maestro Michael Spierman adds: “Music is about the composer, the performer, and the listener. If you don’t have all three, it doesn’t work. Today we had all three, together in the same space!” Happy with the delightful effect of the concert, Maestro Spierman expressed how pleased he was to be back and conduct the outstanding instrumentalists with whom he has often worked. Through its prolonged, enthusiastic applause, the audience seemed likewise overjoyed.
Top photo: Maestro Michael Spierman conducting Orchestra of the Bronx members