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Two Epics in Newark

New York
New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark
03/12/2015 -  & March 13*, 14, 15, 2015
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 3, “The Age of Anxiety”
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”

Kirill Gerstein (Piano)
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Jacques Lacombe (Music Director/Conductor)


J. Lacombe and NJ Symphony (© Fred Stucker)


The New York Philharmonic pairing of Berlioz’ Francs-Juges overture with Thomas Adès’ Totentanz this weekend is thematically inspired. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra pairing of Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety with Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony is equally inspired for the contrast of its two composers.


Here they were, two Jewish composers, both of them influenced by words, ideas and philosophy. Both of them dynamic conductors. Both Mahler and Bernstein creatures of the world’s most sophisticated metropolises in Europe and America. And both of them using their Jewish backgrounds with varying results.


Bostonian Bernstein was the New Yorker incarnate. In The Age of Anxiety, he used the long (uncharacteristically dull) W.H. Auden poem for a long work that is tricky, convoluted, constructing a movement of jazz which is strictly 1950’s 54th Street Manhattan. Czech-Hungarian-small-town Mahler was the international loner incarnate, finding no satisfaction in Budapest, Vienna or New York, Where Bernstein felt at home in Hollywood, on Broadway, in Vienna or Berlin, the ultimate cosmopolite, using his ultimate optimistic “faith” as invigorating finales to almost all his music, Mahler was the Complete Freethinking Artiste, converting to another religion when necessart, and transcending ready-made faith for metaphysical questions.


Jacques Labombe gave more than creditable shows for both composers in a single program last week, though the credits weren’t exactly what was expected.



K. Gerstein (© Marco Borggreve)


The opening Bernstein Symphony would frankly have been nothing without the singular pianist Kirill Gerstein. Especially singular because the Russian-born pianist, a prodigy of prodigious talents, came to America at age 14 to study jazz. The fact that his classical technique and temperament put him in the class with Oscar Peterson made the jazz section here, “The Masque” to have an improvisatory sound that no other pianist (perhaps excepting Keith Jarrett) could achieve.


Truth be told, when Mr. Gerstein performs more “serious” works, one finds it difficult to take him seriously. He skips around the piano like he’s playing Chopsticks, he eschews difficulties and finds the most challenging music child’s play.


So now he sat down for the Bernstein, frequently damned as a “popular composer” hiding under his brilliant classical proficiency. That was hardly true, but this composition had the dual purpose being a symphony and a Jerome Robbins ballet. Thus, the glitter, the incessant movement (even that lugubrious opening seemed to say, “This is an illusion, since I’m a terrific dancer”), the classical variations of that theme.


Both poet Auden and composer Bernstein used the idea of three men and a woman in a bar, returning to her apartment for a few drinks and the music fit in with the scenario.. Musically the variations are brilliant emanations, and even here, the pianist, the supposed character of the composer, works all the classical forms of diminution, augmentation, giving it a cohesive form.


Yet Mr. Gerstein, obviously enjoying himself, couldn’t wait for the Masque, where, joined by a double-bassist of the orchestra, turned the rest of the work into an exercise. A clever exercise, yes, yet something was held back, while the entire New York-style jazz movement was the glittery, sparkly pianistic cynosure.


Ultimately, Bernstein had to end it with one of those ersatz religious chorales which he used in everything from Candide to West Side Story. Bernstein had a talent for this sort of thing, though this was less his Jewish heritage than a kind of Protestant/Catholic unquestioning affirmation.


I wish that Mr. Gerstein had given an encore. His own version of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm is pure, unadulterated jazz without all those strings and harps around him!


Still, the strings and harps–and especially the brass and percussion–were in full bloom for an excellent Mahler First. Bernstein’s “Jewish” themes were embedded in the whole New York atmosphere of his Symphony. Mahler relegated his thoughts to the so-called “village funeral” with its rustic klezmer band, but otherwise his “Titan” was a mixture of nature and festivals, clashes and triumphs.


In other words, the Mahler was a questioning, cryptic mixture. Where Bernstein zapped his genius into whatever loci were convenient–television, theater, film, orchestra, education and opera–Mahler wrapped himself in his own feelings and issued to the public only the essence of these feelings.


No fun, no jazzy party, yet the emotions are obsessively maintained.


If it wasn’t for the horrors of getting from New York to New Jersey (the ticket-machines of the Port Authority are invariably broken), I’d love to hear this orchestra more, for Mr. Lacombe has given them a true vitality. One might question whether he achieved that unearthly sensitivity of the opening (actually, Bernstein, the “resurrector” of Mahler, did get it right), or whether his klezmer was as audaciously vulgar as Mahler wanted. But his percussion, his brass (which stood up for the last bars) and his whole ensemble brought that last movement to a stunning and Mahler-memorable ending.



Harry Rolnick

 

 

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