I’ve been living with Anne Akiko Meyers‘ Serenade album for a bit over a month now (I received it the day it released, September 18th). I usually post a little quicker, but there is so much packed into this album, I took a bit longer (plus, I was wicked busy with book reviews). This album incorporates four elements I love – philosophy, books, music, and movies. The main set piece for the album is Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade which is inspired by Plato’s Symposium; If you’re interested in it, recommend reading Percy Shelley’s translation; normally I would pick something more contemporary but for this, only a poet will do. Just to help you dust off your memory of ancient Greek Philosophy, the Symposium essentially incorporates the equivalent of after-dinner (and while drinking) speeches on the nature of love. These speeches were carried out by a number of characters, including Socrates. Aristophanes, the comic playwright, had one of the more impressive speeches. While I think C. S. Lewis’s Four Loves provides more helpful reflections on the nature of love, the Symposium is a great exposition of Platonic love. All of that being said, Mr. Bernstein indicated that these were inspirations and this symphony shouldn’t be taken as a musical translation of the ideas. For more on the philosophical aspects of the piece, please see Philosophy Talk’s Episode In Praise of Love.
One of many aspects of Ms. Meyer’s artistry I love is that she brings to light pieces outside the more standard repertoire. She gives them a peerless dust-off for a new introduction to a contemporary audience. This was the first time I’ve ever heard Serenade and I’m thrilled with the opportunity to hear it.
In the opening, you’ll find as notes slide into one another similar riffs in West Side Story. Some of the more abrupt transitions remind one of Candide and there are even hints of Mass. It’s all Bernstein and it’s all fabulous. Ms. Meyer’s brings out the emotion with precision. She continues her traditional of intimate sound albeit with the soundstage widened a bit. I can think of a number of artists who could play the fast staccato with equal felicity and a number of artists who can evoke the emotion of broader movements, but it’s rare to find someone who can interpret and execute that interpretation on the wide array of soundscapes Ms. Meyers paints. It’s beautifully done.
Ms. Meyers next ploughs into (mostly) love themes from the cinema. The Morricones’ “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso is one of my favorites, as is “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission. Both of those are lovely, lilting pieces that pull at our hearts, but not in a cloying way. They contain haunting, piercing beauty that is almost overwhelming. Contrast these with the much broader, lush “Laura” or “Someone to Watch Over Me.” While both types are good, there’s a bit more sentimentality layered on the later.
Michele Colombier’s “Emmanuel” is somewhere between the two. It doesn’t pierce but rather permeates your soul with its melody. Ms. Meyers plays directly on your heart and she’s pulling all of the strings. She then brings the Latin heat of the Tango with Jacob Gade’s “Jalousie”. I felt a bit liked I’ve stumbled onto a 30’s movie set listening to this one. Yet Ms. Meyer’s treats it with the same care, respect and dexterity as any piece by Bach. It all works so well. Matthew Naughtin’s arrangement of “Jalousie” flows admirably into Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” (what, no concertina?)
While there is unity of theme, this album has a variety of styles yet Ms. Meyers make it seem like they belong together. Not because she makes them sound alike but because of the similar musical themes and her excellent, consistent playing. While some may be tempted to dismiss the album as a bit too pop-oriented, it is a treasure trove of beautiful songs that round out Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade.