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Review: New York Philharmonic Continues Its Bernstein Tribute With Mixed Results

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, November 3, 2017

The second installment in the New York Philharmonic’s contextualized survey of Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic output features The Age of Anxiety, Bernstein’s second symphony, inspired by W.H. Auden’s eponymous poem, which it tracks closely. The first of three performances took place on November 2, at Geffen Hall.

By rights, it should have been a stunner, opening on the very “night of All Souls” during which the poem’s action takes place, in the very “half-lit almost empty streets” where the poem is set, near the spot where, just three days before, “a crime had occurred, accusing all,” in an era when “the historical process breaks down” and many of us find that “We would rather be ruined than changed,/We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.”

As it turned out, not so much.

First the good news: Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, which opened the program, is a great piece, and Anthony McGill, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s recently-departed music director, and a jazz band put together from the Philharmonic’s own ranks and from the highest echelons of New York’s freelance community, burned the house down with it. It was every bit as exciting as the 1955 premiere, which concluded Bernstein’s famous Omnibus broadcast “The World of Jazz,” and was even better played. Anyone who wants to get snarky about Bernstein’s contrapuntal skills ought to be locked up with this piece for a week or two, and then flogged through the streets.

Principal clarinetist Anthony McGill with Alan Gilbert conducting members of the New York Philharmonic; photo by Chris Lee.

Next up was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a lodestar in Bernstein’s musical development, a model both for his piano-writing and for his understanding of American music as a whole, and the promotional hook for the evening’s program. This was problematic, for two reasons: first, Milhaud’s ballet La création du monde, which Bernstein boldly proclaimed a masterpiece at a time when it was little known outside of Europe, had a more powerful, direct, and audible influence, both on the symphony and especially on Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs; and second, the Rhapsody was badly served by its soloist, the jazz- and crossover-artist Makoto Ozone.

As Bernstein pointed out, the Rhapsody is “not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable,” and while Gershwin may have been “the most inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky,” he wasn’t a “composer” at all. Still, improving Gershwin’s piano-writing is like improving Bach’s counterpoint: it can’t be done, and you can only wonder why anyone would try.

Ozone tried—he reharmonized many of the most distinctive passages in the piece, and every time Gershwin gave him an opening, he added a cadenza—but the results were bland and familiar, in a soft-edged, faux-Impressionist style that nudged and winked at the piece rather than expressing a serious point-of-view. Gilbert and the orchestra gave a powerful, surging performance when they got the chance—the orchestral solos, beginning with McGill’s clarinet wail, were all stylish, witty, and fully authentic—but they might as well have called it Airs and Graces on Themes Faintly Reminiscent of George Gershwin, Intercut with Concert Excerpts from “Rhapsody in Blue,” for all the difference it made.

Something similar happened in the symphony, even though Ozone stuck to his written part, apart from some added hammering in the final (written) cadenza. This is a hybrid work that attempts to integrate aspects of piano concerto and orchestral suite within a large symphonic framework. As Bernstein’s recordings (in chronological order, here, here, and here) have shown, it can cut in many different directions, but in every case it requires a soloist who can put across vast depth and range of feeling—who can both “brood over being till the bars close” and “go away/With my terrors until I have taught them to sing.”

Ozone’s shallow tone conveyed little of this, while throwing off essential balances, so that the slashing, glittering “Masque,” which is supposed to “dance with your deaths till the dykes collapse,” went all soft and pretty, and Bernstein’s magical crossfade between solo piano in full cry and a distant pianola, barely audible through a cloud of pinging celeste—and anyone who wants to get snarky about Bernstein’s orchestration-skills needs to be locked up with this passage and then horsewhipped—was so opaque that it was impossible to tell one instrument from the other.

Gilbert and the orchestra did what they could, and much of that was magnificent, but this was an opportunity lost. The Age of Anxiety is a meaningful, compelling piece, beautifully and brilliantly contrived. It deserved far better, especially in the context of this festival.

Ozone has his stalwarts, many of whom stood up and yelled after the Rhapsody. None of those seated near me stuck around for the symphony. Presumably, they got what they came for. I merely report.

 

 

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Bernstein’s Philharmonic: A Centennial Festival presented by The New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on November 2, 2017 (repeated on November 3-4). Alan Gilbert, conductor; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Makoto Ozone, piano.

BERNSTEIN Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs (1949/1955)

GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue (1924, orchestrated 1926 by Ferde Grofé)

BERNSTEIN The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2, for Piano and Orchestra (after W.H. Auden) (1949; revised 1965)

 

Cover: Pianist Makoto Ozone with Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic; photo: Chris Lee.


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