Special day for Bernstein, his music. Concert commemorates his unplanned 1943 debut
New York — Forty-five years ago this past Monday, a 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein stepped up on the podium of the New York Philharmonic as a last-minute replacement for conductor Bruno Walter. To celebrate this event - and as a continuation of the composer/conductor's 70th birthday season - Bernstein led the Philharmonic (he is its conductor laureate) in a program of his own music in the same hall where he made his unexpected debut.
Bernstein is a beloved conductor in concert halls throughout the world. But, as with all composers, he would rather be remembered as a creative force. The three works he chose for this special program are among his finest: ``Chichester Psalms''; Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion (After Plato's ``Symposium''); and ``The Age of Anxiety,'' Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra. The soloists, violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Krystian Zimerman, are not only among today's leading artists, but also appear regularly with the conductor in concert and on recordings.
Bernstein came into his own musically at the time when the Schoenberg 12-tone system, which was the intellectuals' answer to the so-called death of tonality, was finally beginning to take root. Bernstein, however, was always under the sway of the American jazz idiom and of tonality. He was also a composer of the heart, which obviated his embracing atonality for anything more than biting contrasts within a tonal framework.
This is not to say that Bernstein did not take advantage of, and often revel in, the astringent possibilities of modern techniques. But he always wanted to communicate his heartfelt responses to what he saw of the human condition, and this is what animates the best of his scores, from ``West Side Story'' to ``Chichester Psalms.''
The New York Philharmonic is honoring Bernstein all season long with a retrospective of his orchestral music. (Bernstein's first of two weeks of subscription concerts began last night in Avery Fisher Hall with the ``Age of Anxiety,'' for which Mr. Zimerman was at the keyboard.)
``Age of Anxiety'' is an ambitious work, which strives to put into musical terms the essential drama of W.H. Auden's poem of the same title; it had a tremendous impact on Bernstein in 1947. The composer's search for a way through the tensions of the concerto, which he accomplishes with dramatic and carefully contrasted key relationships, expanded the work to symphonic proportions. The work is provocative, even if it does not always manage to suggest what his elaborate note (written for the 1949 premi`ere) spells out. In the performance I heard, Zimerman proved a committed proponent of the elaborate piano part.
The gap between Bernstein's intent and execution is far narrower in the Serenade (1954), which is impassioned and evocative whether one knows the program or not. And again, the program is really a guide, rather than a detailed scenario in the manner of Richard Strauss's tone poems. That Mr. Kremer is so remarkable a performer of this beguiling work makes listening to it all the more felicitous. And only Bernstein, in my experience, can get an orchestra to play his jazz idiom with the sort of sultry, almost lazy ease that makes it sound so natural.
The heady blend of jazzy effusion, melodic richness, and incandescent orchestration that marks Bernstein at his best has never been better displayed than in the ``Chichester Psalms'' (1965), a work which, in 18 minutes or so, runs the gamut from uproarious praise to cataclysmic furor, to hushed, serene peace. It received a splendid performance, I think: From my seat, all that could be heard most of the time was the chorus and the tympani.
The ``Psalms'' was also given a totally different, more aggressive, yet equally effective account by Zubin Mehta at his first concert of the Philharmonic's Avery Fisher Hall season. Mr. Mehta then offered Bernstein's difficult ``Kaddish'' Symphony No. 3. I say difficult because, unless the piece is presented with an almost vulgarly intense theatricality, its impact can subside in waves of explosive mawkishness. Mehta avoided that pitfall, but the narrator, the excellent American actor Sam Watterston, proved too bland and passive, and the performance faltered.
An article on Bernstein must also acknowledge his extraordinary Carnegie Hall concert with the Vienna Philharmonic a week ago Sunday. The piece was Mahler's Sixth Symphony; the occasion, a special 70th birthday tour with the orchestra's favorite maestro. A great performance of this work should leave the listener so shattered, so annihilated, as to be virtually frozen in place. And the hush at the end of the performance lasted so long as to prove that Bernstein had served Mahler brilliantly.
The tempos, with the arguable exception of the taffy-pull of the Scherzo, were shrewdly and aptly chosen, the moods harrowingly well sustained. And the way in which the Vienna players brought to life the crushing horrors of the finale will remain etched in the audience's memory. It was one of the most extraordinary performances of a Mahler symphony I have ever heard.
Some new Bernstein recordings
Leonard Bernstein's activities for Deutsche Grammophon span a wide range of repertoire. Here are three notable recordings (not including his very latest, of three Mahler symphonies) that feature the Philharmonic Orchestras of Vienna and New York.
Roy Harris's Symphony No. 3 and William Schuman's Symphony No. 3, performed by the New York Philharmonic (DG 419 780-2, 1 digital CD) - These two American classics have rarely had as devoted and illuminating an advocate as Bernstein. The New York Philharmonic has this sort of music in its grain, so both works receive grandiose, stirring performances.
Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 6 and 9, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419 771-2, 1 digital CD) - Bernstein has long championed Shostakovich. (His first version of the Fifth is one of the great orchestral recordings of the stereo age.) There is a tendency to overaccentuate and distort some of the tempos, particularly in the Sixth, but to hear the music played so sumptuously and vividly by the Vienna Philharmonic is quite a treat.
Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 performed by the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 419 722-2, 1 digital CD) - The first in a projected Sibelius cycle is a seriously overexpansive reading of a work I used to think was unsinkable. Ironically, the Vienna plays extravagantly well, but Bernstein's tendency to bring his Mahler sensibility to all music reaches the apex here, so that the piece has no forward momentum whatever.