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Orchestra, conductor, and soloist channel the poetry of Auden in Bernstein's Symphony No. 2

It didn’t take all that long for a sense of fatigue around the Leonard Bernstein Centennial to settle in - Norman Lebrecht, the Geraldo Rivera of classical music, declared it in January of 2018, and the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette decided she’d heard enough last July. From a critical perspective, both had a point - only the music of Beethoven and Mozart had more performances around the globe last year, and regardless of how one feels about the man and his music, we can all agree that Lenny was no Ludwig or Amadeus. It certainly seemed that every musical organization in existence felt the need to participate in the centenary celebration of the American icon, regardless of how tenuous the connection, or despite having one at all. Amid the results were lots of mediocre performances (at best) and an abundance of head scratching programs, many of which were no doubt as tiresome for the performers as they were to the critics.

The overload seemed especially acute here, in no small part because Bernstein’s history with D.C. is significant. West Side Story had its pre-Broadway trial run at The National Theatre; he took members of the NY Phil to perform at the White House for Eisenhower; he conducted the NSO at the pre-inaugural gala for Kennedy, which featured his own Fanfare, composed for the occasion; the world premiere of his Mass inaugurated the Kennedy Center; he conducted the Concert for Peace during the Nixon era at the National Cathedral; and he conducted the NSO again at the pre-inaugural gala for Carter. In the early 1980s Bernstein was even more of a presence in D.C. than during the 60s and 70s, especially at the Kennedy Center, which co-commissioned A Quiet Place and hosted his celebrations of music by Copland and Stravinsky.

Today Bernstein’s protegees continue the legacy on two local podiums: at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop, and at the National Philharmonic, with Piotr Gajewski. Both groups marked the centennial with programs devoted to Bernstein’s music, but the National Phil went especially big, featuring Lenny on a majority of its 2018-19 concerts, including the final two which pair Bernstein with Beethoven. Last Saturday’s concert (nicknamed Bernstein & Beethoven Part 1) began with Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, followed by Beethoven’s 5th. On June 1st (B&B, Part 2), the season finale, the orchestra and chorus perform Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Having endured a fair number of uninspiring performances of Bernstein’s music over the past year and a half, and possessing no familiarity with either the National Phil or the pianist Michael Brown (the evening’s guest soloist), I have to admit feeling a little trepidation going into Saturday night’s performance, but I was intrigued by the chutzpah of the program. Bernstein and Beethoven? Really? Okay, show me.

And they did. There was no evidence of Bernstein fatigue in the audience nor on stage, and I left Strathmore feeling like I’d been let in on a well-kept secret.

Three things about the concert impressed me: the performance sold me on the idea these two works had something to say to each other; the diversity in the audience, including a significant number of (very well-behaved) children; and the obvious enthusiasm and pleasure the members of the orchestra took in performing both pieces, especially the Bernstein.

James Melo’s program notes remind the audience that Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”), was inspired by W.H. Auden’s book-length poem of the same name. While Bernstein claims to have not intended the piece to be programmatic, there’s no mistaking its narrative arc when it’s in the right hands. Melos describes the Symphony No. 2 as “nothing less than a capsule of the entire human journey, from cradle to grave.” If that’s a bit ambitious-sounding, well, a listener can’t say Bernstein didn’t give it a shot.

What was made crystal-clear in this performance, after a slightly shaky opening that took its time coming into focus, was that the music does describe a journey, one in which there is a transformation of something (one can assume it’s an individual) that evolves over the course of the piece yet always retains its distinct identity. For the conductor, solo pianist, and orchestra, creating that unmistakable sense of illustrating a journey is the tricky part, because contemporary audiences cannot be expected to be familiar with either Auden’s poetry nor themes, characters, or situations represented by music. It needs to be spelled out in sound, and on that score conductor Piotr Gajewski, pianist Michael Brown, and the orchestra completely nailed it.

During Part One’s Prologue and Seven Ages, Brown and the orchestra sounded more mournful than anxious. Early on Brown seemed a bit too eager to convey his enthusiasm by over-emoting during straightforward passages. Soon, however, the brass and percussion joined him in creating a sense of “anxiety,” and at that point something seemed to click between Gajewski, Brown, and the orchestra, and suddenly everyone went all in, causing the emotion in the work Bernstein was so eager to convey to suddenly burst forth.

During Part Two any doubts I might have harbored that this level of inspired performance could be sustained diminished as the piece progressed from the Dirge to its Epilogue. How to interpret the transition from despair to jaunty dance rhythms is for the listener to decide, but there was no mistaking that by the time Gajewski wound up the final musical interjection (absolution? bliss? resignation? a farewell?), he and the orchestra had succeeded in taking the audience on a journey, and made a cogent case for pairing this piece with Beethoven’s 5th.

Oddly, the Beethoven wasn’t nearly as successful. Taken at a shockingly fast pace from the famous first four notes, various sections had trouble with entrances and pacing throughout the first two movements, and later some conspicuously errant notes rang out. The spirited string section tried to keep a sense of cohesion, but the whole kept faltering while Gajewski kept the throttle wide open, conducting without a score. Thankfully, the 5th might be the most bulletproof piece in the standard rep, nearly indestructible, and if there was little artistry to it, there was certainly enthusiasm to spare, palpable in the orchestra as well as in the audience. What did work was the ability of Gajewski and the orchestra to make a relevant, and resonant, connection between Bernstein and Beethoven, at least with these two works. The first illustrated a being transformed, the second showed that being’s fate. Or something like that.

For their efforts Gajewski and the orchestra received a warm standing ovation. If one considered every element of the performance, including the presence of many attentive, appreciative children in the audience hearing their first Beethoven 5 (all kids 7-17 are admitted free to all National Phil concerts), I would agree it was deserved.


Mark Rudio, A Beast In The Jungle (San Francisco)
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