NSO Concert: Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” shines

I attended a concert at the Kennedy Center tonight.  The National Symphony offered guest conductor Yutaka Sado, with pianist Jean Yves-Thibaudet.

The first three works, at least, had “moral” substance.

The concert started with the Overture to The Thieving Magpie (“La Gazza Ladra”), by Rossini.  The overture, in E, seems episodic, like William Tell.  It starts with a modern snare drumroll, and goes into a familiar march, before it settles into a compressed sonata form.   The plot of the opera concerns a girl who tries to rescue her father charged with desertion from the Army (think about the history of our own draft) and then is sentenced to death for a theft actually done by a bird.  I’ve seen magpies in Colorado (1994 visit). I’m reminded me of the crow, Timo, who kept chasing me into my own garage the day of Hurricane Sandy.

The main course, and my reason for attending, was to hear the Symphony #2 in C# Minor for Piano and Orchestra (1949), inspired by W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue”. ‘

Is this a piano concerto? No, because the usual sense of dialogue between piano and orchestra as competing forces is not there. I like the idea of calling it a Sonata for Piano and Orchestra.

The work is usually described as being in six movements, three in each part. But Part 1, comprising a Prologue and then two sets of seven variations (“The Seven Ages” and “The Seven Stages”) each seems like a continuous movement.  The thematic material is somewhat inspired by Dies Irae and has some perfunctory tunes, and yet the variations, however serial, build up the way conventional sonata-like development does.  After the first set, the music is said to subside into the subconscious, before it start becoming agitated in successive developmental repetitions of the material, to end with a violent close (I’m reminded of the first movement of Amy Beach’s own Piano Concerto in the same key).  The musical style seems to remind one particularly of Prokofiev, and sometimes late Shostakovich, with a little of the harmonic palette of the late Scriabin sonatas in spots (like Black Mass), which Bernstein must have studied  in detail; the adjacency of the successive passages flirts with atonality in places.  I have to add that near the end of the first set of variations there is a fragment that resembles a transition in my own Third Sonata, first movement;  I must have heard it as a teen and it stuck in my mind.

Part Two, to my ear, sounds like three separate movements, played without pause. The Largo announces a twelve tone row before playing the Dirge: there is an obvious reference to Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite and Wozzeck. The scherzo is called “The Masque” and sounds like advanced jazz, closer to the Bernstein of “West Side Story” but also flirts with atonality (but so does WSS in spots – Schoenberg and Berg had shown how to make dodecaphonic music very accessible). The Epilogue is more than what we get at the end of a Bax symphony; it is almost a complete second slow movement, with a piano cadenza in the middle, but then building up to a tremendous D-flat Major conclusion, FFF, on a ninth chord.  The majestic close reminds me a bit of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony.

The work is said to deal with three men and a women sitting in a bar during WWII and looking for meaning in all the chaos.  I think of O’Neill and “The Iceman Cometh”. I can remember a church seminar on “The Search for Meaning” back in 1972 that wound up with a sermon on the Rich Young Ruler Problem.  People find meaning in seeing sacrifice, if that of others matches their own.

After the intermission, the concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s early tone poem “Francesca da Ramini”, Op. 32, in E Minor. The 24 minute work has a three-part structure, with a passionate middle section where Francesca and her handsome, iconic brother-in-law experience passion, only to be murdered by her dwarf and deformed husband. This program, based on Canto V of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, seems to explore the moral perils of lookism. The conclusion is one of the most violent in all of symphonic literature, even for Tchaikovsky.

The concert concluded with Ravel’s Bolero, which the audience really liked.  It seems to be “orchestral tissue without music”, maybe a test of panpsychism. I wasn’t aware that Ravel’s mother was Basque.  I would have preferred “La Valse”.  And Ravel’s own Piano Concerto in G isn’t bad.

On the Millennium stage there was a jazz group Corey Henry and Treme Funktet.

(Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 11:30 PM EST)