Philharmonic festival continues with rousing Bernstein, “enhanced” Gershwin

Fri Nov 03, 2017 at 1:48 pm
Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic in Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 "Age of Anxiety" with piano soloist Makoto Ozone Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic in Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 “Age of Anxiety” with piano soloist Makoto Ozone Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition,” wrote Leonard Bernstein in 1955. “You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole.”

Twice already in this young season, there have been attempts, not to cut Gershwin’s gem, but to improve it by riffing on it. The first came last month with the Philadelphia Orchestra and three pianists in Carnegie Hall, the second Thursday night at the New York Philharmonic, with Alan Gilbert conducting and jazz pianist Makoto Ozone at the Yamaha grand, as part of the “Bernstein’s Philharmonic” festival.

In both cases, the whole was very much affected, and not for the better. One appreciated anew the virtues of Gershwin’s original (yes) composition: economy of gesture, expert pacing, and dramatic timing (and oh, those tunes).

Happily, no monkeying with the text occurred in the two very effective Bernstein scores programmed alongside the Gershwin piece Thursday night—the 1949 Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs  for clarinet and jazz band and the Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”), also from 1949 but revised in 1965.

The former work, performed under Gilbert’s direction by an ensemble of reeds, brass, drums and piano, led off the concert with bracing energy. Composed for clarinetist Woody Herman’s band, the same outfit for which Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto, Bernstein’s piece stepped out with boldly angular Stravinskian lines, then shattered into a welter of smartly rendered syncopations.

Gilbert drew from the band crisp ensemble and some nicely layered counterpoint in the middle of the piece, before the Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Anthony McGill stepped forward and drove the piece’s closing riffs to a wild, orgiastic finish. (Not for nothing was Herman’s band called the Thundering Herd.) Balancing was an issue, with McGill’s witty, insinuating solos sometimes hard to hear over the lusty blowing of his colleagues.

Gilbert made sure during the bows to acknowledge the drummer (not credited by name in the program), who, navigating the score’s ADHD-like switches of rhythm from march to waltz to bump-and-grind, had been as much the conductor as Gilbert himself.

Exaggeration was the order of the day in the Rhapsody, with Gilbert moving the orchestra along smartly much of the way, only to broaden enormously in the romantic theme and the closing bars, and Ozone’s rubato spurting and hesitating in the piano solos. Ferde Grofé’s orchestration has rarely sounded so brassy in the fortes or so lush and swoopy in the lyrical moments, but amid all the striving for effect the larger arc of the piece suffered.

Ozone’s occasional embellishments and updating of the jazz harmonies were harmless enough, and when he took off on his own in the cadenzas the style of his improvisation was congruent with Gershwin’s. Still, amusing as these interludes were, one found oneself looking forward to Gershwin’s piece resuming.

Ozone stayed on to perform the concerto-style piano part of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2. This and the Gershwin are classical pieces calling for Lisztian piano technique, and while Ozone’s reputation as a jazz master is no doubt well earned, his classical chops were a mixed bag Thursday night.

His agility over the keys was never in question (although a few clinkers crept in), and he shook some fine, fast leggiero playing out of his fingertips in the Bernstein. But the symphony also exposed weaknesses of articulation, voicing, and singing tone in his playing that robbed the music of some of its color.

Although W.H. Auden’s 138-page dramatic poem The Age of Anxiety received the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, it is remembered now mainly for its title, which became a catchphrase for the postwar era of nuclear dread and Freudian soul-searching. Bernstein, however, read the whole poem and was galvanized into writing a symphony on its themes of self-examination and quest for faith. Bernstein himself admitted that “the pianist provides an almost autobiographical protagonist,” and most observers would omit the “almost.”

Laid out on the page in a Mahlerian scheme of Part One, Part Two and subdivisions amounting to six movements, the work in performance comes across much like a conventional four-movement symphony, with a lengthy first movement in variations style, followed by a slow movement (Dirge), scherzo (Masque) and finale (a rhetorical Epilogue).

The external action of Auden’s poem involves four characters talking in a New York bar, taking a boozy taxi ride to one of their apartments, trying to party but talking some more instead, and going their separate ways at sunrise. As in his Serenade (“after Plato’s Symposium,” performed by the Philharmonic last week), Bernstein said he found himself following the characters’ philosophical dialogue almost word for word in crafting his musical response.

Since most people don’t know the poem, the piece has to stand on its own as music, and that it did quite nicely on Thursday. Unfolding at first in a series of “developing variations,” each brief segment picked up an idea from the one before it, then proceeding to the taxi-ride Dirge for lost faith, the dazzling Masque in stride-piano style (marked “Extremely fast”), and (departing from Auden’s inconclusive ending) an affirmative Epilogue that swelled at the end to Mahlerian proportions.

Relieved of the need to “do something” with an overfamiliar work, Gilbert, Ozone, and the orchestra got down to the business of making Bernstein’s tunes, leitmotifs, and endless felicities of scoring sound their best, which they mostly did, given the soloist’s limitations. Philosophical explications aside, Bernstein’s score proved a rousing piece of music, and the audience’s enthusiastic response brought some real festivity at last to the Philharmonic’s Bernstein “Centennial Festival.”

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. “Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival” concludes next week with Strauss’s Don Quixote and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”), conducted by Leonard Slatkin with Jeremy Irons as narrator, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 and 14, 8 p.m. Nov. 11, and 3 p.m. Nov. 12. nyphil.org; 212-875-5656.

 


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