New York Philharmonic/Maazel – Mahler, Maazel, Boulez & Bernstein

Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Music for Flute and Orchestra with Tenor Tuba Obbligato, Op.11
Pli selon pli – Improvisation II sur Mallarmé
Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)

Robert Langevin (flute) & Brian Bowman (tenor tuba)

Kiera Duffy (soprano)

Joyce Yang (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 27 September, 2008
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

The New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall have established a joint partnership this season to present some 30 programs focusing on the music and career of Leonard Bernstein. The present concert coupled Bernstein’s Second Symphony (The Age of Anxiety) with three other works by New York Philharmonic music directors.

Lorin Maazel. ©Chang W. LeeLorin Maazel lavished uncanny and intense attention to details of phrasing and color in the opening work, the grand-scale opening Adagio of the Tenth Symphony that Mahler left unfinished. The viola soliloquies (played later in the violins) took on an air of hushed uncertainty; the soaring melody, which is first played by first violins seemed in a world apart from the block chords dominated by low brass sonorities; dynamics were carefully judged (such as the diminuendo in a pivotal pizzicato figure played early in the movement by the second violins). The entire movement was carried out efficiently and a bit bloodlessly, though many of the tutti sections sounded more like Mahler’s Seventh Symphony than the harmonically envelope-pushing Ninth, to which the Adagio is often (perhaps too often) compared; the clarity of Maazel’s direction left this listener contemplating the possibility that Mahler may have been taking a great leap backward with this work.

When I first heard Maazel’s Music for Flute and Orchestra a decade ago during a Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by the composer, it did not leave a positive impression – this despite the presence of James Galway as soloist. The present performance left a completely opposite impression – the Philharmonic’s principal flutist, Robert Langevin, played the challenging solo part with charm and beauty; his penetrating and colorful sound is tailor-made for this concertante work, as is the alternately boisterous and warm sound of tenor tuba-player Brian Bowman.

Robert Langevin The opening movement showcases the tonal-centric soloist and tenor tuba with blues-infused passages and rapid scale passages; the movement marked ‘Languid’ sports remarkably lush music with harpsichord and celesta textures bubbling up colorfully; the ‘Song’ movement, arguably the most inspired music Maazel has written, is the musical and emotional centerpiece of the work, with the flute accompanied by shifting instrumental groups (the winds and harmonium making a particularly effective impression). The cadenza is also engaging and playful, with the flute accompanied by castanets and an Indian ‘rain tube’; the finale is in a generation-later version of the American urban-cosmopolitan style embodied by Leonard Bernstein, Peter Mennin, and late Aaron Copland. Langevin and Maazel made a strong case for Music for Flute and Orchestra being one of the most engaging flute works of recent decades.

Pierre Boulez’s “Improvisation II sur Mallarmé”, a setting of the sonnet “Une dentelle s’abolit” by French symbolist poet Stéphane (Étienne) Mallarmé, would become the third movement of the “Pli selon pli”. It is written for soprano and an ensemble of harp, keyboard percussion, gongs and cymbals, maracas and crotales – an ensemble only slightly larger than that employed for “Le marteau sans maître” a few years earlier. Unlike that seminal piece, ‘Improvisation II’ uses relatively free tempos and rhythms, and utilizes a more cellular serialism, in which smaller groups or sequences of notes are deployed in varying ways. The result is a more poetic and colorful setting that mirrors and in some ways dramatizes the text.

Kiera DuffyThe uneven acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall can be cruel to some voices, but Kiera Duffy’s light, pitch-perfect soprano sounded splendid and in ideal balance with the ensemble; her diction was clear, yet her voice sometimes took on a glowing instrumental quality, and both soloist and ensemble projected bold assertion along with delicate balance, even in some of the quietest passages (some of which were marred by excessive coughing from the audience).

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No.2, entitled ‘The Age of Anxiety’ after W. H. Auden’s epic poem of 1947, was premiered in 1949 and underwent revision. It is a ‘symphony-concertante’ with a solo piano part that predominates the music, and the structure mirrors that of the Auden poem: a first part Theme and Variations, and a second part in three smaller movements, ‘The Dirge’, ‘The Masque’, and ‘The Epilogue’. The biggest problem with the Variations first part is that, ironically, it has one of the least memorable themes Bernstein ever wrote. The result, despite the best efforts of Maazel and Joyce Yang, is that it sounded more like a pastiche of twentieth-century styles lifted from, for example, Hindemith, Britten and William Schuman.

The second part of the symphony is generally more engaging – the Philharmonic’s lower strings were particularly impressive with their forceful sonorities in ‘The Dirge’. ‘The Masque’ was brimming with manic energy and ‘The Epilogue’ was Coplandesque. Yang played the sometimes-daunting solo part with alternating poetic beauty and crackling energy – and total technical assurance. The ‘swing’ from “The Masque” was missing – but I suspect that was more Maazel’s doing than Yang’s – and the work came across with more nostalgia than hand-wringing – but then, given the current global economic and geopolitical mess, the years following World War Two are starting to look pretty appealing by comparison.

Despite the best effort of soloist, conductor and orchestra, Bernstein’s work was the least satisfying music of the evening – but I’d have to lay the blame on the immensely talented composer, whose Second Symphony is not characteristic of his finest, glorious works for the concert hall and stage.

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