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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Hamelin plays American music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 15 Feb 2009 12:43:47 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (117 lines)

Leonard Bernstein
William Bolcom
Piano & Orchestra

*  Bernstein: Symphony #2, "The Age of Anxiety" (1948)
*  Bolcom: Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra (1978)

Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano
The Ulster Orchestra/Dmitry Sitkovetsky
Hyperion CDA67170 Total Time: 59.30

Summary for the Busy Executive: American anxiety.

Outside of partisans, I've never understood the unwillingness to accept
Leonard Bernstein's concert music.  Its sheer brilliance is more than
enough for me to raise him into the first tier of postwar composers,
and I love almost all of it.  Even so, I admit the truth of some of the
complaints from those on the other side.  Pretentious, "meaningful" texts
exercised a strong attraction on him.  I would contend, however, that
it rarely infected the music.  Even something as blushworthy as the
composer's text for the "Kaddish" Symphony stands apart from the music
itself, among the finest written by an American and by a hell of a lot
of Europeans, for that matter.

All three of Bernstein's symphonies fall, to some extent, into the
category of "problem symphony." The second, subtitled "The Age of Anxiety"
(after the Auden poem), has such an extensive part for solo piano that
one could consider it a concerto equally as well as a symphony.  Furthermore,
it exhibits a structure unusual for either symphony or concerto.  It
does follow the movement of Auden's poem, but at a rather abstract remove,
and you don't need to know the poem in order to follow the music, although
you may better appreciate little "touches" here and there.  The first
movement begins with an introduction mainly for two clarinets, followed
by something like two variation sets of seven variations each.  The first
reminds me a bit of terza rima, where elements of previous sections
become the basis of the next section.  The second is kind of a passacaglia.
At least, it begins as a passacaglia.  The ground bass then becomes the
basis of the following variations.  Bernstein's formal contrapuntal skill
and his rhythmic exuberance both come to the fore with jazzy 7/8 passages
and at least one fugato.  Indeed, the first movement eschews sonata form
altogether in favor of a kind of continual development.

The second movement falls into three large parts: a slow movement
("Dirge"), a scherzo ("Masque"), and a final chorale ("Epilogue").  The
scherzo, chock full of Bernsteinian pizzazz and brilliantly scored for
piano, harp, and the percussion section, has an immediate appeal, with
its sardonic, jazzy appropriation of "Rock-a-bye Baby." Hindemith tinges
"Dirge," while Copland provides the model for the "Epilogue." Nevertheless,
Bernstein manages to transform these borrowings through some unknown
alchemy into something uniquely his own.  The "Epilogue" recycles earlier
themes in a kind of phantasmagoria, as if one ascends from the subconscious
to return to the everyday world.  The opening clarinet duo comes back,
this time scored for full strings, and provides the basis of the ending.
Whatever motific variation Bernstein works takes a back seat to his
considerable command over symphonic rhetoric.  In a way, the score moves
a lot like a ballet, with symphonic overtones.  Bernstein primarily
creates drama.

On the other hand, William Bolcom's piano concerto mainly comments on
other music.  The air of prodigy has long clung to Bolcom, a student of
Milhaud, although by now Bolcom is at least seventy.  I've always found
him inconsistent.  Certain pieces I love.  Others pass by without sticking.
The piano concerto's first movement takes an ironic look at Gershwin's
Concerto in F.  Gestures and phrases from the earlier concerto show up
in this one, all of a sudden postmodernly cool.  The concerto was a U.S.
Bicentennial commission, and in 1976, on the heels of Viet Nam and
Watergate, Bolcom wondered what there was to celebrate.  It's a fair
question, but the art has to measure up.  Here, Bolcom's mixture of
vernacular and super-slick postmodern collage only half works.  The
really vital parts of the movement are the vernacular ones.  The trendy
collages come off, not ironically but snarky.  Bolcom's concerto differs
from Gershwin's in the same way wit differs from imagination, to borrow
Coleridge's distinction.  Blood flows through the veins of Gershwin's
concerto, Evian through Bolcom's.

Things pick up in the second movement, titled "Regrets." Bolcom has
said that he intended an ironic comment on the Gershwin second movement,
but you'd never know it.  In the liner notes, Peter Dickinson writes
that it's difficult for a listener to pick up musical irony.  I would
add "unless it's extremely broad." Certainly if Bolcom had said nothing,
I wouldn't have known.  I would concede that both Gershwin's and Bolcom's
share a kind of nocturnal reflection.  However, Bolcom to me has bigger
fish to fry than mere commentary.  For me, if I had to assign an
extra-musical meaning, it meditates on lives wasted in the war.  Musically,
a nearly atonal, though quiet, duet for two clarinets, dissonantly
developed in "conversations" between small orchestral groups and the
solo piano, morphs at its climax into a bittersweet "pop" version for
full orchestra.  Then it quiets down, to where it leads directly into
the finale.

The last movement is an Ivesian patriotic smorgasbord.  But where
Ives is proud of the country's "barbaric yawp," Bolcom gets mad at its
vulgarity.  "Taps," for example, begins as a heartfelt song, becomes
inflated, and ends in sniggers, as if to say that once-genuine patriotism
has been cheapened.  My politics have little to do with my discomfort
and dismay at this.  In fact, I happen to agree with Bolcom up to a
point. But as cynical as I am, I want to believe in a pure core of belief,
away from opportunistic officials.  There's little point in at least
paying taxes otherwise.  Bolcom's "over-the-top" vulgarity has little
humor or humanity in it.  I would rather listen to Sousa marches, quite
frankly.

Sitkovetsky and his Ulstermen simply don't get it.  They play too stiffly
in the Bernstein.  They don't know from swing, although they seem to get
the notes.  The playing improves in the Bolcom, mainly because Bolcom's
idiom lies closer to contemporary European trends.  Still, there's not
a lot of poetry here, and Bolcom's concerto needs it badly.  No complaints
from me about Marc-Andre Hamelin.  He gives these readings whatever life
they achieve.

Steve Schwartz

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