The Concert Will Feature Leonard Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” and Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique.”
Wrapping up its A Century of Bernstein celebration, the Kansas City Symphony’s season finale is an ambitious double bill: Leonard Bernstein’s “The Age of Anxiety” and Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique.”
“The Age of Anxiety (Symphony No. 2 for piano and orchestra) (After W. H. Auden),” to give the work its full title, is based on Auden’s 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning book-length poem, “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue.” The work traces the evening of conversation between four strangers who meet in a bar.
The poem galvanized Bernstein, 29 at the time and on the cusp of the recognition and status that he craved, bouncing between Boston, New York, New Mexico and Israel. He based his second symphony on the poem’s themes and structure, creating a uniquely hybrid work that dazzles with glittering syncopations, lonesome melodies and modern elements, at turns charming and defiant.
Bernstein wrote the work in honor of Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony, and Bernstein himself played the piano part at the premiere in 1949. Throughout his career, he returned to the work, rewriting the ending in 1965, and recording it multiple times, as conductor.
This concert features pianist Ran Dank in his second performance with KCS, who made a tremendous impression when he filled in last minute for an ill soloist in 2013.
Though Auden’s work affected Bernstein deeply, Dank feels the music transcends the poem. “This piece strikes a fantastic balance of being innovative, fresh and very Bernstein — anybody who is familiar with his language would immediately recognize this kind of writing — and being very sincere and communicative and musical,” he said.
“Throughout every step of the way, one feels that the person who has written this is a great musician and a great pianist, because everything is written to maximize the potential of the piano,” he said. “It was also a fusion of so many different worlds, just like Bernstein was.”
The poem and the music came out of an era of strenuous global situations and marked social conflict: the threat of Russian influence in government, tensions in Asia, war in the Middle East. It doesn’t seem much different today. “It feels like every generation feels like Age of Anxiety is their own generation,” said Dank. “Everybody can relate it to his or her existential state. ‘Age of Anxiety’ also seems to be something that speaks to every individual privately, and I think in that sense it is always going to be relevant, this sense that things are not quite what they should be. We can all relate to that.
“A lot of the poem deals with the concept of ennui, basically boredom, and I think that is very relevant to today, the sense that everybody is constantly looking for new stimulants.”
With the Bernstein centenary, the work is enjoying renewed attention, with over 20 pianists performing it throughout this season and next. It’s a challenging work and, up until this year, not frequently performed. “Not for nothing is it called Symphony No. 2. It’s a full symphony on top of kind of being a hybrid with a piano concerto,” said Dank.
“It’s a tricky piece to put together as far as ensemble . . . It’s more contemporary in style and there’s a lot of tricky rhythmic issues in the piece. Bernstein’s music always has compound meters and these kind of rhythmic subtleties and complexities.”
But, he adds, “It’s incredibly energizing and it’s just so well written.”
“I’m effusing all over the piece but I feel like it’s needed, because some people think it’s a second-rate piece, but it is not. It is a first-class piece,” said Dank. Bernstein fought all his life against a musical climate that deprecated music that appeared sentimental or post-romantic, but Dank thinks this piece overcomes those criticisms.
“It is an emotional journey. He takes us from the very open gesture of the piano, which is beautiful and touching and . . . when it comes back at the end it feels transformed.”
“This will be exciting playing the piece for the first time,” said Dank, when asked about overcoming performance anxiety. “It’s just something that doesn’t come back, so I very much embrace it and enjoy the ride. It’s a little bit like people going to amusement parks and riding the roller coaster. There’s a certain thrill to it.”
Thrilling, indeed, especially paired with Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique,” one of the most popular works in the repertoire. (Coincidentally, Dank’s KCS debut also featured “Symphonie Fantastique.”)
Cue the 1,000-pound church bell
Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” is so popular that orchestras around the world own 1,000-pound church bells reserved especially for these performances. KCS usually rents bells from Dallas Symphony.
Like Bernstein’s work, it is a hybrid symphony. The five-part tone poem is based loosely on Berlioz’ own experience, written as tribute to his infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson, who became his “idée fixe.”
Like Bernstein, Berlioz was also young, 27, and out to prove himself and his genius, confounding musical circles and defying family and Academy to pursue his goal.
While it’s not necessary to know the program (and the work is sometimes presented without it), the music follows this narrative: The artist falls instantly in love with a beautiful woman; he sees her again at a party; he obsesses about her in the country; his passion unrequited, he poisons himself with opium, dreams he has killed her and is then marched to his execution; still dreaming, the artist is surrounded by dancing witches.
Bernstein, discussing the work during a Young People’s Concert, described the work’s “psychedelic fireworks” as “a portrait of a nervous wreck.”
Berlioz did, in fact, poison himself with opium in front of Smithson, attempting suicide to convince her of his passion. She married him in 1933, against the wishes of both their families, and also deeply in debt. They separated in 1944 and Berlioz married his mistress soon after Smithson’s death in 1954.
The work proved Berlioz’ making, though, with its innovative harmonies, complex orchestrations, sublime melodies and audacious timbral combinations, that astounded the Parisian public and still thrills audiences today.
Comparison of the two works is a good measure for Bernstein’s influence as we celebrate his 100th anniversary during the first quarter of the 21st century. While Berlioz’ anxiety manifested in morbid imagination and Auden’s characters distract from their dissatisfaction, Bernstein conveys a more hopeful prescription: the anxiety that comes before a new adventure.
The Kansas City Symphony will perform its Season Finale Fantastique with Bernstein concert at 8 p.m. June 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. June 24 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information and tickets, 816.471.0400 or www.kcsymphony.org.