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America; that Beautiful Noise

Deep barking brass and threatening, thundering timpani take turns with sweetly floating moments of tenderness in the first movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony. The movement, titled “Prophecy” was the beginning to the latest installment of the Kennedy Center’s celebration of “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts” that ties in film, exhibitions and concerts.

The NSO did Bernstein and their conductor, Leonard Slatkin, proud with well honed playing that ended on wonderfully soft notes, reverberating into the gait of the second movement, “Profanation.” This second movement follows Jeremiah’s prophecy with another tone poem-like depiction of the priesthood’s mockery of the prophet, culminating into a “pagan celebration” with disguised reappearances of the earlier themes. (Not that I could have gathered all that just from listening. It is not that descriptive in musical terms… but Richard Freed’s program notes helped out.) “Lamentation”, the third and final movement, made use of Mary Philips’ velvety and appropriately penetrating mezzo but is slightly less involving. Well performed as it was, though, it managed to be chilling, beautiful and (mildly) shocking all at the same time.

available at AmazonL.Bernstein, Sys. 1 ("Jeremiah") & 2 ("Age of Anxiety"),
Lenny, NYP

available at AmazonA.Copland, Sys. 3 & 0 ("Organ"),
Lenny / NYP / E.Power Biggs

The landscape of cello concertos is sparsely populated with true gems – and none the richer for Barber’s contribution. That is not to say that it isn’t a fine piece of music (which, by all means, it is), but the cello and tutti passages seem oddly unhinged, disjointed and lacking a discernable goal toward which they work. All that makes it a more thankless work than its junior sibling, the Violin Concerto. Of course, the 1947 New York Music Critic’s Circle who bestowed their award on the concerto, and program note writer Richard Freed, who calls it “superbly tailored to the character of the cello itself”, seem to disagree. Still, I, too, can find passages of great beauty and cohesion sprinkled between the somewhat more tedious and long solo passages of the first movement (Allegretto Moderato).

The Andante Sostenuto continues all the good elements of the preceding movement and Lynn Harrell, who was the night’s featured soloist, churned out a clean and pleasant reading for this NSO premiere. Mr. Harrell’s tone was not very thick, nor piercing… and while I could have hoped for a bit more edge and volume in some passages, it was never less than pleasing to hear him. The third movement (Molto Allegro ed appassionato) was taken at a rather leisurely pace and brought back some of the first movement’s odd calling cards. The audience, filling no more than three quarters of the Concert Hall, seemed enchanted and sustained applause called Mr. Harrell unto the stage three times.

The second half of the program was Aaron Copland’ massive Symphony No.3 – another piece played seldom enough to be special just on the account of hearing it live. Copland created this bear of a work for Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony Orchestra upon commission, and alongside a huge orchestra (the double basses and percussionists alone had manpower enough to field two football teams), he asks for fine delicacy (especially toward the end of the 1st movement) as much as brutal force. Clipped outbursts, piano and xylophone chatter, brass orgies enliven the 2nd movement. All along it showed that this program must be dear to Leonard Slatkin’s heart: The NSO was audibly well drilled, responsive and played unusually well. A special nod to the brass section – not always the source of beaming pride at the NSO – that did a marvelous job. (The only notable flaw occurred when I jotted down the preceding sentence.)

Wondrous ethereal, soft comes along the third movement, as though exhausted from the topsy-turvy scherzo. But nothing in Copland is “wondrous ethereal, soft” for too long, and after a substantial orchestral sprawl and meandering, the delicious celesta marks the entry of the quote from “Fanfare to the Common Man”, a merry noise, indeed. It also marks the shift into the fifteen-some minute, rousing ascent to the finale that was nothing short of spellbinding and spectacular.

The almost-ecstatic audience even got a Roy Anderson encore (complete with bicycle-bell or its orchestral cousin) and a little speech that took some very vocal and very vocally cheered jabs at WETA’s decision to off their classical music service and go all-news, all-the-time. The night was clearly an American marvel of the Washington concert season not to be missed. (The Washington Post - read Daniel Ginsberg's review here - would agree.) Repeat performances take place today, Friday, and Saturday, at 8.00pm.