Bernstein brought me to the concert, but then....

Have you been to a concert somewhere in the world recently? Share your thoughts with us about the performance, the more details the better!

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Bernstein brought me to the concert, but then....

Post by Ricordanza » Mon Mar 19, 2018 4:25 pm

It was an easy choice. When I received the brochure for the 2017-2018 Philadelphia Orchestra season last spring, the concert on Friday evening, March 16, was an immediate check on my list for ticket purchases. The orchestra would be playing Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety. The soloist would be the outstanding French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the conductor would be Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s a work I had heard in recordings, but finally, this would be a chance to hear it live!
The other pieces on the program were almost an afterthought, but they were, at the very least, acceptable: Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, and Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Don Juan.

The performance of Bernstein’s work was certainly no disappointment. The orchestra was in fine form, as we’ve come to expect under Yannick’s direction. I’ve heard Thibaudet before and continue to be impressed by his brilliant pianism and his facility with every style of composition. His playing of the jazzy “Masque” section was particularly idiomatic.

But there was a nagging thought after the orchestra and soloist completed their performance: perhaps I like the idea of this composition more than the piece itself. True to his eclectic method, Bernstein fits a number of different musical styles into this 30-minute work. Each of these sections is interesting and engaging, but for me, it doesn’t hold together as well as, for example, Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and orchestra.

So with these thoughts rattling around in my head, we returned from intermission for Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. That part of the program turned out to be the ultimate concert experience—the perfect combination of a great piece of a music with a performance to match.

First, the music. The “knock” on Schumann is that he was not a good orchestrator. I can’t claim the technical knowledge to confirm or dispute this, although I’ve listened to enough music to tell that composers such as Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Mahler were great orchestrators. Schumann may not belong in this esteemed group, but this particular symphony, as performed by the Philadelphians (and probably with some adjustments by Yannick to improve balance), holds its own in its deployment of the full resources of the orchestra. It’s also a symphony that is rich with melodies and musical ideas, and wonderfully structured. Although in four movements, the symphony is played without pause between movements, and this works because each movement leads naturally to the next. The transition between the third and fourth (final) movement is particularly enthralling.

As for the performance, the orchestra never sounded better. Standing ovations are almost routine these days, but judging by the intensity of this particular ovation, I was not alone in feeling that we had just heard a performance at a place even above the high level that characterize concerts under Yannick’s direction.

I can’t say anything negative about the orchestra’s performance of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. It’s a piece of great emotion and intensity, and the orchestra delivered a stirring performance. But the Schumann remained in my ears as one of the peak experiences at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

So I came to this concert for the chance to hear Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety in performance, but I left with the indelible memory of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4.

John F
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Re: Bernstein brought me to the concert, but then....

Post by John F » Tue Mar 20, 2018 4:09 am

Ricordanza wrote: perhaps I like the idea of this composition more than the piece itself
That describes my response to much of Bernstein's music, partly due to titles and concepts that promise more than I think they deliver, partly to Bernstein's style. After his centennial has passed, I wonder how much of his music will still be played, either in America with American musicians or elsewhere. Not so much, I suspect.

Schumann wrote his 4th symphony, the final version, to be performed with no pauses between the movements. (I don't know whether that's true of the first version, which he substantially revised and improved.) The movements aren't musically continuous as with Beethoven's 6th or the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and Schumann might simply have been trying to prevent other music being interpolated between the movements, as was the custom until well into the 19th century. Does anyone here have any info about this question?
John Francis

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