Davies Hall, San Francisco
The San Francisco Symphony
May 7, 2015
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Susanna Phillips, soprano
Bernstein – The Age of Anxiety Symphony No. 2 (1949/1965)
Mahler – Symphony No. 4 in G major (1901)
There is a sound you sometimes feel after midnight, high up in Manhattan. It comes from maybe thirty blocks away. Very faint. In the stillness of your mind, you know it is a lonely taxi horn dancing with the doppler effect. But in the small hours of the city, you wonder who might be riding home amongst sleeping millions, and how boozily, and what love affairs or personal dramas might now begin or end. New York is like that. In its darkness, taxis are crickets, and you listen.
Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, opens with this same after hours feeling, insinuated by a single clarinet, and the mood never truly sees daylight. Like another great cityscape, Frederick Delius’s Paris,The Song Of A Great City, Bernstein’s music speaks the language of adventure by dark. Of bars and smoke, of conversation and woozy emotion and breath-stopping disillusion, there is much in this work—of sunlit nature—nothing at all. The story dies at dawn. Among American symphonies, this one owns the night.
Last Thursday in Davies Hall, ably assisted by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas showed himself fully at home, as always, carrying the Bernstein mantle. Indeed, he is now our senior Bernstein authority, standing in parade before a slightly younger generation of advocates, such as Leonard Slatkin, Andrew Litton, Marin Alsop, and Gustavo Dudamel. And I think it fair to say the symphony no longer needs to be championed. It has been around now for as long as MTT himself. But its place in the repertory will never be what Bernstein might have desired. Bernstein hoped one day to out-Mahler Mahler. That never happened. But he did manage a wonderfully theatrical “piano concerto,” just as Rachmaninoff did in his Paganini Variations—call these works what you may.
Bernstein’s Symphony is really several sets of piano variations, each building on the one coming before. The piano gives the work its protagonist, and jazz its city tone. The piece actually works very well, but not in the way the composer probably hoped. We don’t remember Age of Anxiety for great sweeping statements. Indeed, the ending seems so cribbed from Copland and Mahler’s Seventh, that the composer himself described it as “pure Warner Brothers.” The last bars sound like Mahler wearing a Colt 45. And there is a slightly Flintstones quality to some of the drama. At various points in the symphony you could imagine cave men striding across the screen in leopard-skin loincloths, carrying clubs.
The Stravinsky influences, of which there are many, seem derivative, but are redeemed by a warmer heart. Indeed, they way the work begins, you half expect it to be called The Rite of New York. And we don’t pay attention to Auden’s poem any more. The symphony follows its outline, but we are spared the words. Just as well. Bernstein and Auden were clearly worried about “dehumanization” and “alienation” in the industrial age, and a tone row Bernstein includes in this symphony makes for a vivid climax, suggestive of a nuclear holocaust. The orchestra screams upward in fourths and fractures into a white light. But experiencing the paranoid intellectual fixations of sixty years ago is like being condemned to watch a 1949 version of My Dinner With André. It reminds one that public intellectuals are egocentric, Copernican and usually wrong!
The real heart of the Second Symphony is Masque, Bernstein’s jazzy piano-bar riff on Bye Bye, Baby. Lukas Foss made famous his performance of this, but Thibaudet dazzled just as idiomatically on Thursday. Masque is a perfect miniature, with its Chopin-like filigree and delicate percussion sonorities. It captures the essence of alcohol-fueled city nightlife as nothing else has before or since, and truly makes the symphony work. Whether, of course, Bernstein wanted to go down in history for depicting the Tick-Tock lounge at midnight is another story.
This concert concluded with an appealing, middle-of-the-road performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I always go slightly blank, when I think of what to say about this work. It is a study in naiveté, and this can be dangerous in music. The symphony is polarizing, even among its advocates. Zubin Mehta once confessed in an interview that conducting the sleigh-bells for the umpteenth time on tour had finally gotten to him! But most of us accept the music’s sincerity. Whether we enjoy its deliberate childlike nature then becomes a matter of taste. I have heard it done at half speed, by Haitink some years ago in New York and been bored out of my mind. But then there is the famous Mengelberg version from 1939 (available on YouTube) with the most preposterous ritards you could possibly imagine—but vital and fascinating—despite. You can try a lot with Mahler. Most of the time you succeed.
MTT took no such chances. But the orchestra was supple and airy. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was appropriately devilish in the scherzo, the slow movement dreamy and flowing and the Susanna Phillips a pleasure to watch and hear in the sung finale. A statuesque brunette in a beaded white and black dress, Phillips projected the meaning of the words without seeming coy or coquettish or in love with herself. This was young but womanly Mahler. I was grateful for that.