Canada Bernstein, Barber, Copland and Gershwin: Joyce Yang, piano; Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, conductor, Orpheum Theatre Vancouver, 10.5.2014. (GN)
Gershwin: Cuban Overture
Bernstein: Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’
Copland: Appalachian Spring
I admit that I always get somewhat anxious when discussing Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, since it has had a fairly harsh critical past, this despite Harold C. Schonberg’s original proclamation that it was a ‘great work’. Inspired by W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer-prize winning poem of the same name (1947), the symphony has wrestled from the outset with the question of whether it is essentially a ‘personal’ representation of the play’s narrative or absolute music per se. But then there are further issues connected with the large concertante role given to the piano — just how soloistic should it be — and the eclectic musical fabric itself — often viewed as a compendium of derivative musical styles with unremarkable melodic content. Of course all these concerns have arisen in tandem with the composer’s own interpretations, recorded on three occasions, with Lucas Foss (1950 and 1978) and Philippe Entremont (1965).
I was quite taken by the ‘Age of Anxiety’ on offer at this concert but it was certainly straighter and leaner than Bernstein’s own interpretations, sometimes seeming to aim for a more austere simplicity of expression. There was certainly little hint of ‘over the top’ dramatization, or conscious elevation of some of the more facile musical ideas that characterize this score. An absolutely key input in this was pianist Joyce Yang, who has championed this work in recent years. She brought both strong cohesion and meaning to the piano writing, moving out to make her solo contribution telling and decisive when required but very skillfully and judiciously taking an obbligato role at other times. Throughout all the diverse variations in the first part, her transitions were seamless and there was never a let-down in her concentration.
After her ruminative and deeply-felt opening statements, the pianist seemed to balance dramatic attack, rhapsodic fervour and thoughtful repose so well that when we came to the jazzy variations later on it simply felt like a natural part of the musical flow, a moment of release from the complex tensions of the opening, rather than a change in musical style. Her balance with the orchestra was impeccable, almost as a pianist might play when performing chamber music. Some may talk about the ‘knockout’ dimensions of Joyce Yang’s performance of this work a few years ago with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic but, for me, it was her unostentatious, but supremely musical, intelligence that really stood out. It goes without saying that she does have a beautifully firm tone, a clean, precise line, and can bring out virtuoso panache when she needs it.
And then there was the orchestra, which played remarkably well. Maestro Akiyama did not belabour the opening wind theme, played quietly and sensitively, with motion. But he did maintain significance of this wind band, letting its varied expressions throughout the work almost be the commentator on the proceedings rather than the piano. Of course, these expressions become more anthem-like later on, but this focus gave the work a real integration. At the end, when we reached the restatement of the opening motive in the piano, the perspective almost made it feel like the work was written in cyclical form – a truly organic unity. Akiyama brought a strong, crisp projection to all the orchestral climaxes, indeed quite exciting, but there was never a hint of over-expression. The other complementary factor was the precision and detail in the interplay between piano and orchestra, which always kept everything interesting and alive.
I enjoyed this performance immensely and clearly so did everyone else; a really fresh and compelling experience. Not the Bernstein we might be used to, but perhaps none the worse for that. The performance might have seemed more emotionally-neutral as it proceeded but it certainly packed an emotional punch by the end. The rest of the programme featured standard ‘Americana’ which, while enjoyable, was not at the same exalted level. I liked hearing Gershwin’s Cuban Overture though, which seemingly does not appear in concerts that often but certainly is a lot of fun every time.
© Geoffrey Newman 2014
Previously published in http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com