Leonard Bernstein was the great showman (for want of a better word) of serious music in the mid/late 20th century; and the conflict that that involved, between high art and popular appeal, stalked his creative life – uneasily for him but interesting for us.
This year brings the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, and it will be a grand affair with celebrations worldwide. But the London Symphony Orchestra is already on the case. Its “Bernstein 100” events started before Christmas. And the highlight so far has been a Barbican programme that illustrated the serious/showman split, with Simon Rattle conducting Bernstein’s tortured 2nd Symphony, followed by a condensed, concert version of the free-and-easy Broadway musical Wonderful Town.
Both pieces date from roughly the same period, around 1950, and it was the symphony that drew me to this concert – although, as things turned out, the musical had more to offer. Subtitled The Age of Anxiety after the long WH Auden poem about urban emptiness and sterile lives that was its gloomy inspiration, the 2nd Symphony takes itself very seriously indeed as a reflection on all that was wrong with post-war America. But it doesn’t come with enough musical substance to fulfil its self-appointed task. And an odd structure focusing on sets of variations for solo piano robs it of true symphonic gravitas. The pianist here was Krystian Zimerman, a long-time Bernstein champion who brought authority to the performance – but not too much life.
Wonderful Town, by contrast, was a riot. The plot is wafer thin – two sisters looking out for love and good times in New York – but its simplicity, sharpened with acid humour, offered Bernstein what his genius required to soar in racy, uninhibited exuberance. And at the Barbican the LSO, transformed into a Broadway big band with extended brass and drum kit, turned the piece into a party.
With a strong line-up of soloists led by the Broadway star Alysha Umphress and Glyndebourne’s own Danielle de Niese as the sisters – ill-matched but somehow managing – the show exploded, twice, into a giant conga that had everybody snaking around the auditorium in genial mayhem. It was silly but a joy. And I can’t remember a concert from which so many people emerged with faces stretched by ear-to-ear smiles.
The Norwegian embassy’s annual Christmastide concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields wasn’t so upbeat but, as usual, it was a British platform for emergent stars of Norway’s music scene; and one that interested me was Lise Davidsen, the heavy-voiced soprano who is her country’s latest hope for international acclaim. The voice is raw, unfinished, but impressive. And it’s seriously big. Wagner no doubt awaits.
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