Philadelphia Orchestra delivers heat and adventure with Leonard Bernstein's 'Symphony No. 2'

ae1dssclass04 Bernstein conducts the CSO; Academy of Music; 60th Ann. 1984-26022018-0007
Leonard Bernstein conducts the Curtis Symphony Orchestra with soloist Susan Starr in a 1984 performance at the Academy of Music.

Now that we’re in the umpteenth chapter of  Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday year, the Philadelphia Orchestra plunged into the ultra-literate thickets of Symphony No. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”) – a piece that’s not quite a piano concerto or symphony or tone poem but deploys all of those elements with great compositional heat.

The Friday night Kimmel Center program also featured Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 and Strauss’ Don Juan, though the main feature was obviously music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s continuing Bernstein revisionism, particularly aided by the magnitude of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound – though piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, for all of his jazz sympathies, wasn’t up to speed on the music’s Copland-meets-Thelonious Monk hybrid.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH
Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, pictured in 2015, continues his Bernstein revisionism in this, the 100th birthday year of the composer.

Symphony No. 2 is Bernstein’s late-1940s response to W.H. Auden’s book-length poem Age of Anxiety, which examined how the exhilaration of World War II victory wasn’t a cure for human angst. Indeed, profound loneliness is well conveyed by the opening moments. Later, the music is punctuated by expansive scales that seem to lead you down a manhole into … what? Bernstein gave out mixed messages as to how much his symphony was dependent on its Auden-authored source material. I read Auden years ago, but finding a copy of it now is tough.

So Bernstein’s symphony needs to stand on its own. Though thematically knit together, the piece’s musical events seem to jump all over the place. If anything, Nézet-Séguin underscored that with his compelling characterization of each episode.

Also curious, the music is riddled with links to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, written a few years earlier but with an expansive, outdoorsy sensibility. In Bernstein, Nézet-Séguin always found stone-in-the-shoe harmonies that create a more complicated emotional response than Copland. The 1949 world-premiere Boston Symphony recording with Bernstein on piano and Serge Koussevitzky conducting gave the piece a big Hollywood ending that Nézet-Séguin tastefully downplayed. Thus, the symphony felt like a dense, restless urban counterpart to Copland. Every turning point in Bernstein’s piece is like a city block that promises new adventure. That interpretation, to me, is the symphony’s ticket to the future. Visual aids by Edward Hopper would help.

Schumann and Strauss were odd bedfellows with Bernstein, though Nézet-Séguin’s Schumann is a known and highly valued commodity, balancing the Philadelphia Orchestra sound with his taste for swift, chamber-orchestra tempos. This time, the lyrical passages in Symphony No. 4 seemed, more than ever, like songs being sung to secret lyrics.

Strauss’ Don Juan, usually positioned as a curtain-raiser, came at the end. In such a spirited performance, what could top it? Luckily, Nézet-Séguin’s brand of bombast maintains such high-quality sound that it doesn’t seem bombastic.

Appearance

Symphony No. 2

    • Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18, at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.

    • Tickets: $61-$163.