Continuing the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s Centennial Season, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony and guest artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in a performance of the composer’s fascinating and introspective Second Symphony, known as The Age of Anxiety.
Based on W H Auden’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, the symphony depicts four characters in a bar in post-war New York – who share a feeling of disenchantment with the world. They strike up a conversation in which they share their individual struggles to come to terms with the effect that the war years have had on them, their lack of faith in society, and the difficulty they each face in finding a meaningful relationship.
Fuelled by their intake of alchohol, they find themselves being drawn together during their heated debate, and after the bar closes, the only girl in the quartet invites them back to her place to continue the evening. There they indulge in a display of jazzy, yet fake, frivolity, until daybreak, when they each return to their everyday lives of loneliness.
It’s as compelling a work as was Auden’s original poem, yet even more enigmatic, since the theory exists that the piano, around which Bernstein centers his work, actually represents a fifth person, almost a spectator looking in on the conservation. French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has an even more intriguing theory – that the piano represents Bernstein himself, observing the events of the night. It “makes total sense”, he says, since he believes that the composer “is obviously telling an important story”. Very thought-provoking, particularly as Bernstein is quoted as saying that he found that “…… the composition of a symphony based on The Age of Anxiety acquired an almost compulsive quality”.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a regular and welcome guest at Davies Symphony Hall, commanding – as he does – reviews such as “Great energy, brilliant technique and unassailable artistry” (Cleveland Plain Dealer); “….impeccable technique and a spirit that combines romantic expressivity with the most sophisticated lyricism” (el Nuevo Herald); and “…. dazzles with drama and emotion” (The Straits Times).
The program ends with the Richard Strauss tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), which is generally thought to be autobiographical, despite the composer’s protestations to the contrary. Written in 1897-1898, the work was dedicated to Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and it was premiered on March 3, 1899 by the Frankfurt Museum Orchestra, with the composer conducting. It has six sections, played without a break, and entitled The Hero, The Hero’s Adversaries, The Hero’s Companion, The Hero’s Battlefield, The Hero’s Works of Peace and The Hero’s Retreat from the World and Fulfillment.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest artist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in Bernstein’s Symphony No 2, The Age of Anxiety on November 2, 3 and 5 (this one at 2.00 pm). For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
Sources of information:
San Francisco Symphony program notes