Happy Birthday, Lenny! From Rattle and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bernstein: Krystian Zimerman (piano), London Symphony Chorus / Simon Halsey (chorus director), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 16.12.2017. (CS)

Bernstein – Symphony No.2, The Age of AnxietyWonderful Town! (concert version)

Eileen – Danielle de Niese
Ruth – Alysha Umphress
Bob Baker – Nathan Gunn
Wreck – Duncan Rock
Lonigan – David Butt Philip
Guide/First Editor/Frank – Ashley Riches
Fourth Cop –  Michael Baxter
Third Cop/First Man/Cadet/Villager – Kevin Brewis
First Cop – Stephen John Davis
Violet – Flora Dawson
Second Woman – Soophia Foroughi
Second Cop/Second Man – Andrew Keelan
First Woman – Jane Quinn

‘We’re saying happy birthday, Lenny’.  This, says Sir Simon Rattle, is the statement made by the LSO’s third Bernstein-Celebration programme which paired Bernstein’s Symphony No.2 (1948-49) with the composer’s musical Wonderful Town!, written four years later.

Who hasn’t sat in a concert hall feeling one’s apprehension and stress levels rise as that tickle at the back of the throat grows ever more irksome, threatening to become a cacophonous disruption to the music being enjoyed by others?  There was strong empathy, and some alarm, then, when during the piano’s very first entry in Bernstein’s Second Symphony, Krystian Zimerman struggled to stifle a spluttering cough – the symphony seemed aptly subtitled indeed.

Clearly afflicted by a nasty bug, Zimerman gamely continued, sometimes one-handedly, but it’s not surprising in the circumstances that there were occasional lapses of concentration – most noticeably a muddle in the Dirge which opens Part Two of the symphony.  That said, this was still a performance that confirmed Zimerman’s instinctive affinity with Bernstein’s music.  His playing blended genteel elegance and perky pizzazz.  And, his lightness of touch, clarity, and persuasive transitions between idioms and types of articulation were beguiling.  Spiky glass shards hammering in the upper register, dreamy Ravel-infused speculations, hyper-alert jazz riffs with the percussion section, whimsical quietude: even through the chest-rattling, Zimerman was self-composed whatever the musical terrain.

The LSO and Rattle were unfailingly sympathetic accompanists – the work is essentially a piano concerto in all but name – and articulate, engaged contributors in their own right.  Bernstein himself described the piano as ‘an almost autobiographical protagonist, set against an orchestral mirror in which she sees himself’; and, Rattle and the LSO confirmed this dialogic connectedness.  There was some fantastic woodwind playing: the loveliness of the clarinet duet in the opening Prologue was tempered by a hint of coolness which alluded to Mahlerian loneliness.  There was some strikingly expansive string playing, not least the soaring G-string melody in Part 2, which was vibrantly rich and perfectly tuned.  Rattle repeatedly turned encouraging towards his double bass section, and section leader Colin Paris’s solo was strong and communicative.  The Epilogue to Part 2 was celebratory but still retained a sense of underlying tension and angst, and in the final Con moto section, leader Roman Simovic made a tremendous contribution.

The symphony’s subtitle indicates the work’s debt and relationship to W.H. Auden’s eponymous baroque eclogue, but it also attests to the zeitgeist.  In 1949 Aaron Copland – who in 1953 was to be subpoenaed to testify before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations – had given a speech to delegates at the ‘Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace’ held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in which he described the scenario of the artist silenced, and self-silenced, by the politico-cultural anxieties of the age.  Bernstein’s subtitle suggests that his symphony was as much a riposte to Copland as inspired by Auden’s poetic-dramatic conversation between four protagonists – Quant, Malin, Rosetta and Emble – who gather in a wartime pub in New York to meditate on their lives, hopes, fears and on the human condition.

But, the ‘dramatic’ idiom of the alliterative, allusive poem – begun upon Auden’s arrival in the US in 1939 and published in 1947/48 in the UK and US respectively – and the fact that Auden was himself a librettist, is surely not irrelevant to Bernstein’s initial feeling that ‘the poem and the Symphony were mutually integral’.  For, although Bernstein later suggested that ‘the Symphony has acquired a life of its own’, the Age of Anxiety is, as Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO confirmed, essentially theatrical.

And, there was more theatre to come after the interval.  For, despite the politically potent resonances of Wonderful Town!, the post-interval emphasis was on partying rather than politics.  One sensed that for many of the participating opera singers – amplified, to allow their spoken and declaimed lyrics to come across with undue effort – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town! offered a wonderful opportunity to let their hair down by dipping their toes in the free-flowing waters of musical theatre.

So, brandishing a Yankee twang and a miniature Stars-and-Stripes, Ashley Riches couriered his gaggle of tourists across the Barbican stage, round the Hall and back again.  David Butt Philip made a pretty good stab at Lonigan’s Irish drawl in ‘My Darlin’ Eileen’ accompanied by a corps of mellifluous love-struck cops whose romantic passion swelled into a hypnotic jig.

As Bob Baker, Nathan Gunn was a relaxed but insistent vocal presence, softening his tone when he finally recognised his love for Ruth.  Duncan Rock’s Wreck – sleeves turned up, tossing a baseball – swaggered then slumped, struck low by unfulfilled expectation: ‘Their cheering still wrings in my ears … W-R-E-C-K-E-D … Wreck, we love you!’

Danielle de Niese was brilliantly cast as Eileen, resplendent in scarlet.  Her voice glistened with mischief and sparkle, and the vocal charm of ‘It’s Love’ worked its musical magic on Baker.  De Niese mimicked the Irish accents of the smitten cops who’d arrested her, wryly declaring, ‘Mother’s a Swede, and Father’s a Scot, and so Irish I’m not – and I never have been’, before making a swift escape as her admiring captors covered their eyes, only to reappear moments later at the top of the choral ranks.

But, the star of the show was Broadway stalwart Alysha Umphress: honest, dead-pan, her vocal lines were effortlessly yet skilfully sculpted and imbued with character and colour.  This Ruth raced with self-deprecating irony through the ‘One Hundred Ways to Lost a Man’, giggling along the way, and turning to kiss the hand of leader Simovic – with whom de Niese also flirted at the close of ‘A Little Bit in Love’ –  at the wry conclusion, ‘Yes, girls; you too can lose your man, if you will use Ruth Sherwood’s plan’.  Her bewildered irritation as she attempted to interest the Brazilian sailor cadets in the cultural delights of NYC, only to find them fascinated solely by the ‘Conga!’, was brilliantly exacerbated by the swirling disco lights (no staging, lighting or movement credits were given, but it was all very slick).  In her duets with de Niese’s Eileen, Umphress cannily blended her vocal tone, while retaining a strong individual personality in the lower line.

Rattle’s saxophone/brass-heavy LSO enjoyed themselves, even if they didn’t quite throw caution to the wind – the visceral rhythmic counterpoints essentially seemed intellectually relished rather than hedonistically indulged – and the LSO Chorus, singing impressively from memory, swayed, finger-clicked and toe-tapped with fairly polite ‘abandon’.   But, the full vocal cast and chorus evinced a terrifically exciting sheen.

Just when we thought the party was over, Rattle launched into an encore which saw de Niese lead the cast, half the chorus and a few brave audience members around the Barbican Hall, doing the ‘Conga!’  Whether in fictional New York, or real-time London, we were certainly ‘on the town’.  ‘Happy Birthday Lenny’, indeed!

Claire Seymour

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