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Classical review: RPO's 'Bernstein Celebration'

Anxiety, Irony, and Good Tunes


This week, Ward Stare and the Rochester Philharmonic are celebrating the centennial of that first among 20th century American musicians, Leonard Bernstein. This concert wasn't just a tip of the baton to a revered musician; it was a salute by a lively, communicative conductor to an infinitely talented composer, conductor, and general muse to American music-making.

I don't associate Bernstein with the music of Samuel Barber, but he did perform Barber's Second Essay a few times with the New York Philharmonic, and Ward Stare is a Barber enthusiast, so why not include it on the RPO's program? This is one of Barber's best short orchestral works, compact and melodious but rather dark and Nordic in character. The RPO definitely got the sound right Thursday night, and the RPO brass highlighted Barber's sonorous scoring.

In 1949, Aaron Copland described the music of a 31-year-old colleague: "At its worst Bernstein's is conductor's music -- eclectic in style and facile in expression. But at its best, it is music of vibrant rhythmic invention, of irresistible élan, often carrying with it a terrific dramatic punch."

That year also saw the premiere of Bernstein's Second Symphony, inspired by W.H. Auden's then-sensational poem "The Age of Anxiety." When Copland wrote of Bernstein's music "at its best," I wonder if he had this powerful, ambitious work in mind. It is perhaps not the most obvious choice to represent Bernstein's "serious" work on a concert celebrating his centennial, but it is a satisfying one.

To summarize Auden's book-length poem much too simply, "The Age of Anxiety" is an exposé of life in a post-war urban world, among four New Yorkers who try to find meaning in late-night discussions, alcohol, and each other, and fail on all counts. Bernstein praised Auden's poem for its "shattering virtuosity," and his musical response to it is no less virtuosic in its way.

Bernstein mirrors Auden's poem with an intricate but easy-to-follow structure that is basically a big series of variations. In the first section of the symphony, they're variations on a single theme, but also on each other: The second variation latches on to an element of the first, the third variation takes off from the second, and so on (a rather neat way to translate the idea of aimlessly searching for meaning). If that wasn't enough, Bernstein adds a demanding part for a piano soloist, who represents the poem's narrator or observer.

There are many arresting moments in this 40-minute piece, starting at the beginning: two clarinets meandering quietly around a simple theme -- a wonderful evocation of nocturnal urban ennui. At the other end of the spectrum is the symphony's best-known section, a jazzy, jittery, jangling tour de force for piano and percussion called "The Masque."

As Copland stated, Bernstein's music is exceptionally eclectic. His borrowings from Brahms and Broadway (not to mention Copland -- and Stravinsky and Mahler and Hindemith), with turns of phrase that are all his own, don't seem like an issue now. Maybe it is "conductor's music," but now it just all sounds like Bernstein, and it all hangs together.

You might say that Stare led "The Age of Anxiety" like a symphony, but soloist Misha Dichter didn't really play it like a concerto. The conductor held Bernstein's sprawling, episodic structure together, and elicited idiomatic playing from the orchestra. Dichter played beautifully, and piano and orchestra told the story in a well-integrated fashion.

Not surprising for a pianist who has been a favorite here for decades in more traditional repertoire, Dichter seemed more comfortable with the music's Brahmsian elements than its Broadway echoes. The "Masque" was exciting, but never had the "punch" Copland mentioned. However, Dichter played the piece's reflective sections with sensitivity and often exquisite tone. This is not really this pianist's piece, I think, but overall this was an intelligent and effective account of a fascinating work.

Bernstein was a notable interpreter of several of the splashier symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, but his two recordings of Shostakovich's relatively modest Ninth Symphony (and his video commentary on the piece, available on DVD) reveal that he really "got" this score's ironic, satiric tone. (For a cinematic equivalent, think of the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup.")

At the end of World War II, Stalin and Friends expected from Shostakovich a Ninth Symphony like Beethoven's: chorus, orchestra, soloists, tragedy, and triumphal marches. What they got from Shostakovich was a short piece that sounds like a Haydn symphony with the ink smeared: tuneful, wittily subversive, but with moments of genuine, mindless terror poking holes in the high spirits. For example, the second movement waltz is interrupted by a spooky, crescendoing chromatic figure that could be from "Boris Godounov," and the fourth movement consists of a recitative for solo bassoon, overtaken by low-brass blasts that sound like a KGB knock on the door. Shostakovich also lived in an age of anxiety.

I don't believe the RPO has played this symphony in many years, but you would never know that from this tight, knowing performance, which finely balanced comedy and tragedy. It also offered some virtuosic orchestral playing, headed by numerous solos from the wind players -- I must mention bassoonist Matthew McDonald, who played his long solo with fine, focused tone and a sense of drama.

The symphony was preceded by more spoofy Shostakovich: "Tahiti Trot," his delightfully dorky orchestration (apparently written in 45 minutes, on a bet) of ... well, I will not spoil a surprise if you're planning to hear this on Saturday, but it's a tune you'll definitely recognize.