Revisiting Lenny at 30

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Verizon Hall, March 17, 2018
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 for piano and orchestra
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 4
Richard Strauss: Don Juan


Canadian pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (photo courtesy Philadelphia Orchestra)

Yannick Nézet Séguin continued the season long centenary tribute to Leonard Bernstein with a bit of a rarity for the Philadelphia Orchestra with Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety and two repertory favorites that Yannick clearly loves conducting.

Canadian pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist for Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, for piano and orchestra, composed in 1949, Lenny himself at the keyboard in its premiere performance. Inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ Bernstein orchestrating a late night intellectual jam session of urban denizens out of an Edward Hopper painting. Lenny has a lot of compositional jumping off points and it has both an adventurous and derivative orchestral narrative.

Thibaudet strode on the Verizon Stage all smiles, dressed in an Elvisy copper shark-skin jacket that matched his relaxed charm. The score was in front of him, but he was playing chunks of it from memory, but at several points leaning intensely into the charts. Meanwhile his engagement with the orchestra impressed as he powered through Bernstein’s stylistic complexities. A less focused performance by the orchestra would have exposed the symphony’s pastiche quality.

The weakest elements are Bernstein’s foray into jazz chromatic flights ala jazz innovator Thelonious Monk. Bernstein hedges his bets, careening to more conservative stride piano vamps. Meanwhile, there are Copland-esque symphonic progressions, but more interesting is thematic peeks into Bernstein’s oeuvre- passages that are prescient to his MASS, and there are some cinematic sonic waves foreshadowing his soon to be composed score to the film On the Waterfront, and certainly brazen urban sensibility that fuels West Side Story.

Of course Bernstein’s crowded keyboard runs, hand over hand dexterity and note clusters that accelerate to a point that they seem to be crashing like waves in the concert hall. Thibaudet brought all of the technical drama of those passages, without pounding, and most admirable delicacy enough that during the largo passages- lucid, as a resolve, not merely sonic contrast.And it is also concerto for orchestra and Lenny uses everyone. Stunning harp counterpoints by principal Elizabeth Hainen and soaring woodwinds led by oboist Peter Smith.

Nezet Seguin has expressed musical love for the works of both Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss, he has conducted and recorded their repertoire with many orchestras around the world.  The Philadelphians brought the 4th to its full dimension in this performance from the subtlest distant echoes of baroque forms to its full throated lush salon symphonics that hint at modernism.

The closer was Strauss’s one-acter Don Juan that YNS delivers like a walk in the park brassy showpiece, but every detail is present. The lush salon orchestral mise-en-scene. Jennifer Montone, exquisite leads with the supporting hornists in the codas blazing heralds.