Making Sense of Bernstein’s Anxiety

United StatesUnited States Bernstein and Mahler: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Susanna Phillips (soprano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 8.5.2015 (HS)

Bernstein: The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Among Leonard Bernstein’s strengths as a composer was his chameleon-like ability to slip easily into nearly any music form or style he wanted. He especially liked the syncopations and harmonic shifts of jazz, which peppers many of his works. The eclectic nature of his musical ideas can polarize musicians and audiences, who love or hate the way spiky twelve-tone phrases career to bouncy stride piano, or lush chorales transform into stately Brahms-like polyphony. All that is in evidence in Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 (1949), which served as the opener for Mahler’s sunnier Fourth Symphony in the San Francisco Symphony’s program at Davies Symphony Hall.

Michael Tilson Thomas, whose dedication to Bernstein’s works around here has been revelatory, led a fully committed, detailed and expressive performance, and the narrative he created was as coherent as might be possible in this overstuffed folio of musical ideas. The piece is also an odd duck, a hybrid of symphony, tone poem and piano concerto. At the keyboard, the nimble Jean-Yves Thibaudet indulged his own passion for jazz, bringing the flamboyant swinging passages to credible life better than most classical pianists.

Tilson Thomas emphasized orchestral colors and expressive dynamics, beginning with the slow interweaving of two hushed clarinets in the opening pages, and touching on everything from brassy interjections to rumbling bass lines as the two sets of seven variations play out to end Part I. In Part II, the piano takes on more of a lead role, first establishing a 12-tone row in the slow “Dirge” before sashaying into fast, jazzy flair in “The Masque.” The epilogue, where the various elements finally come together, coalesced into something rather stirring.

It all made for a satisfying romp. And maybe that’s the best way to approach this piece. Bernstein was inspired by the long W.H. Auden poem, which traces the angst and ennui of four souls from their meeting in a bar to the post-dawn dissolution of an all-night party that never really gets going. The music even follows the same six-part form as the the poem, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. In the end, although he kept the summary of the poem in the score, Bernstein himself made a point to say that he veered away from making the symphony too literal, ultimately preferring to approach it as pure music.

In 1965 he recast the ending for the version played here. Realizing that the piano part had taken on a life of its own, creating something of a concerto, he expanded the keyboard’s role in the final pages with an extended cadenza—a feverish reminiscence playing off the various musical ideas—which leads to a richly evocative chorale-like sequence in the orchestra for a big positive finish.

In his two decades at the helm, Tilson Thomas has established the San Francisco Symphony as a leading Mahler interpreter; regular concert goers have come to expect transcendent performances. While Friday’s rendition benefited enormously from the plush, plangent singing of soprano Susanna Phillips in the radiant finale, there was something of the “routine” in its 55 minutes. Granted, this is Mahler at his least angst-ridden, only occasionally interrupting the sunlight with passing moments of orchestral grumbling. The darkness did not quite rattle the cages enough to make the sunbeams as welcome as they might be on their return. The moments where the music broadens out could have created more ecstasy. Here and there entrances were blurred, horn lines roughened around the edges, moments of delicacy not quite as gossamer as the ensemble has played in this hall before. Good as it was, the magic never quite happened.

I had circled this program in anticipation when it was announced as part of the 2014-15 season, a rare coming together of this orchestra’s central strengths and two perfectly cast soloists. They didn’t exactly fumble the ball, but they didn’t quite get it over the goal line either.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment