Classical review: RPO's 'Bernstein Celebration'

Ward Stare
Rochester City Newspaper

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."
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