In what may be seen as a clever gesture of economy, this spring Strathmore’s National Philharmonic is commemorating two composers for whom major anniversaries flank this anno Domini 2019: Leonard Bernstein (who would have turned 100 last year) and Beethoven (born in 1770); Saturday’s concert was the first of two, the second to follow in June, to pair a major Beethoven symphony with one of the “serious” works of Bernstein, whose popular reputation as a composer, as he himself noted with chagrin, was based more on his film and theater music than on his works for the concert-hall. Bernstein’s 1949 Second Symphony, with which the program began, is not quite a masterpiece, which probably accounts for its more-or-less peripheral place in the standard orchestral repertoire; Walter Piston’s somewhat unjustly neglected Second Symphony, predating the Bernstein work by just a few years, probably represents a more structurally cohesive exposition of the jazz-tinted idiom, basically modern harmonically but not devoid of melodic warmth, that Bernstein mines here.
Yet if Bernstein’s Second Symphony tends to be a bit episodic, it has manifest virtues as well, starting with the wonderfully atmospheric clarinet duet with which the work begins. The work was inspired by Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety, with the solo piano part meant to be a sort of running commentary by the poem’s protagonist; Bernstein tries to evoke the postwar world’s undercurrent of existential angst without resorting to mere cacophony (a la Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima) or Shostakovian bleakness, and the result is a work of an uncharacteristically broad emotional range for the period, with passages of genuine poignancy interspersed among celebratory jaunts. The effect is often touching and quite evocative; one feels transported to the streets of Manhattan circa 1950 and can sense the American optimism of that era, yet with a nagging fear that all might not be as well as it appears on the prosperous surface. Michael Brown gave a fresh, direct, and lively reading of the solo piano part that never grew over-inflated or threatened to bog the music down. The National Philharmonic, not quite a full-time orchestra yet, makes up in tonal warmth (especially in the strings) and musicality what it lacks in virtuosity, and responded to the leadership of music director Piotr Gajewski, at one point a student of Bernstein’s, with buoyancy and supple phrasing.
The performance of the Beethoven Fifth that followed reminded me how easy it is to take this king of all symphonic warhorses for granted—and what a mistake it is to do so. Beethoven’s musical and dramatic craftsmanship permeates every page of this work, even the overly familiar first movement and the sometimes-dismissed but really, I think, very lovely second movement Andante con moto, so that incidental excitement and attention to detail consistently contribute to rather than distract from the overall dramatic structure. Several distinguished, indeed brilliant Romantic composers labored for years, often in vain, to recapture the astounding unity of form and content Beethoven achieved here, in what is to boot a relatively short symphony by nineteenth-century standards.
Gajewski’s intention to give an urgent reading was evident from the ubiquitous opening measures, with no lingering on the fermatas. This interpretive plan might profitably have been implemented with greater flexibility at times. Tempos were often held just a bit too strictly, and there were occasions, especially in the second movement, where the musicians struggled to keep up and passage-work became unnecessarily blurred. Yet although the playing often lacked the last ounce of heft and incisiveness, there was plenty of musical and well-characterized phrasing to enjoy in each movement, with a palpable sense of joy communicated in the triumph of the finale—a sense of joy, by the way, that I miss in the much-lauded recording by Carlos Kleiber. The musicians of the National Philharmonic were very obviously enjoying themselves, and such enjoyment is certainly infectious, all the more so if one has heard too many phoned-in performances by more famous ensembles.