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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Concert Review: The Young Person's Cure for Anxiety

The NJSO plays a matinee of Bernstein and Mahler. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Kirill Gerstein played Thursday afternoon with the
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy the NJSO.
The composer Leonard Bernstein was a pivotal figure in the 20th century, not just for his own catalogue of symphonies, musicals and operas, but for his work as a conductor. It was Bernstein who brought the large and muscular symphonies of Gustav Mahler to the attention of the general public, eventually making Mahler a cornerstone of the symphonic repertory. On Thursday afternoon, it was the turn of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and music director Jacques Lacombe to bring Bernstein's little-played Symphony No. 2 before their Newark public.

Subtitled "The Age of Anxiety" (and inspired by the bleak urban landscapes of Edward Hopper and the poetry of W. H. Auden, this is a perfect hybrid of a proper symphony and a piano concerto. Bernstein chooses an unconventional form: seven movements (two of them consecutive sets of variations on the same theme) and an extended part for the piano soloist, representing the anxious individual coping with the cold reality of modern life. Here, that soloist was Kirill Gerstein, fresh off his Monday recital at Carnegie Hall and playing the solo part off an iPad mounted on his piano desk.

At the work's premiere, Bernstein himself played the difficult piano part, which requires power and speed as the opening motto theme is put through two sets of seven variations each, answered and responded to by the harp and woodwinds. The piano writing is very demanding here, with the soloist having to work closely with the orchestra, engaging in call-and-response with unusual instruments and mastering Bernstein's thoroughly modern sense of rhythm.

The second half of this work is divided into three smaller sections. The Dirge was grim and funereal, with the piano responding to low, groaning figures in the woodwinds and a dusky backdrop of strings. The quicksilver Masque, with its complex percussion part, answering celesta and jabbing rhythm allowed Mr. Gerstein the chance to apply his jazz chops to the quirky cadenzas. Finally, Epilogue re-introduced the main four-note theme, altering it to a hopeful message in the last bars of the work.

Jacques Lacombe chose a light-footed approach to the Mahler First, bringing vitality to the descending-fourth bird calls that open the first movement. Mr. Lacombe's experience with vocal music served well here, as he adapted a brisk tempo for material that borrows thematic material from Mahler's own Songs from a Wayfarer and from the second act of Hänsel und Gretel. This extended first movement built from shimmering chords to a brassy trumpet-fueled finish,

The trend to quick tempos continued in the second movement, a pairing of a clumsy ländler with an elegant waltz. Despite some pitch problems with one of the horns, the section recovered to deliver Mahler's staccato figures with flair. The double bass leads off the slow movement, a comic funeral dirge based on the tune Frére Jacques. The principal woodwinds shone in the lamenting song that followed, itself turning into a celebration with the arrival of the clarinet.

Performing this symphony, any conductor runs the risk that the whole work will sink under the weight of the final movement. With its massive structure, high-octane blasts of percussion and trumpet, and long repeated sections (the closest Mahler ever came to appropriating Bruckner's measured style) this finale can wear out its welcome quickly. Here, Mr. Lacombe and his players carried the piece to its conclusion with fast tempos and sturdy playing, with the string section playing taut rhythms through quasi-contrapuntal figures and the eight horns standing in a final brassy salute.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.