Review: The Philadelphia Orchestra Presents Leonard Bernstein’s First Major Composition

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 was the major undertaking at The Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts of May 3, 5 and 6, 2017. Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the piece as a prelude to a year-long celebration of Bernstein’s centenary. (He was born on August 25, 1918.) Nézet-Séguin conducted the concerts in the midst of a three-week stint leading Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at The Metropolitan Opera in New York (including a performance on May 4).

Sasha Cooke. Photo by Dario Acosta.
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano. Photo by Dario Acosta.

Bernstein began the piece in the summer of 1939, right after his graduation from Harvard at the age of 20. Concerned about the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, he wrote what he called a “Hebrew Song” for soprano and orchestra, based on the biblical Book of Lamentations. Then he put it aside as became a freshman at The Curtis Institute.

He included a version of that song in a three-movement symphony in 1942, which he called Jeremiah and which he entered in a competition where his conducting mentor Serge Koussevitsky was chairman of the jury. The symphony did not win a prize; not even honorable mention.

The titles which Bernstein gave to the three movements — Prophecy, Profanation, Lamentation — sound pompous, and the music is more accessible without such labels, at least without the first two. The last section is Bernstein’s vocal setting of part of the Book of Lamentations, about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. (Scholars once thought, but no longer, that the book was written by the prophet Jeremiah.)

Bernstein’s conducting professor from Curtis, Fritz Reiner, suggested that Lenny’s music could find an audience if he added a fourth movement because, as Bernstein related, “[Reiner] insists it’s all too sad and defeatist.” Bernstein refused. Exhibiting the brashness of his youthful personality, Bernstein said “I seem to have had my little say as far as that piece is concerned.” Mutual friends who knew Lenny in those days told me that he definitely was assertive and sometimes rude; never docile.

In November 1943 Bernstein made his legendary conducting debut with The New York Philharmonic as a substitute for Bruno Walter, which propelled him to fame. Reiner invited Bernstein to conduct the premiere of this Symphony No.1, left untouched as Bernstein insisted, with The Pittsburgh Symphony on January 28, 1944. Mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel was soloist. Within the following year, Bernstein conducted it with The Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Rochester, Prague and Jerusalem.

Yannick’s conducting of the symphony started boldly and assertively, with pulsating brass chords in dissonance with weepy violins and whispering bass fiddles. The movement projects the patriotic fervor that accompanied America’s entry into World War II. It includes variations on the musical theme of the Amidah, included in synagogue worship as 18 benedictions that declare praise for God.

Peculiarly, Bernstein at the time denied that he quoted Jewish liturgical melodies. Was he embarrassed to admit that he had? Not likely, considering his personality. But those were days when it was rare for Jews to speak out and to identify as Jews. Bernstein even considered changing his last name to Amber to disguise his religion. Or maybe Bernstein’s musical sourcing was unconscious.

The second movement is a scherzo that portrays destruction and chaos. Bernstein later admitted that he based this middle movement on his bar mitzvah portion, “derived, note for note”, sped up and “rhythmicized.” To modern ears, it resembles the Latin music in the gym scene of West Side Story. Bernstein’s irregular rhythms derive from his familiarity with the non-metrical structure of the Hebrew language, which is based on the alternation of syllables, without regard to meter.

The third movement, in Bernstein’s words, “is the cry of Jeremiah as he mourns his beloved Jerusalem, ruined, pillaged and dishonored.” Sasha Cooke eloquently sang the tune which repeatedly goes downward, expressing outrage and defiance. The Hebrew words are about Jerusalem — “How doth the city sit solitary” — but the city’s name is used as a representation of world Jewry which seemed to be ignored by the world as it was being exterminated. A quiet woodwind and strings postlude suggested a glimmer of hope.

Radu Lupu. Photo by Pekka Saarinen.
Radu Lupu, pianist. Photo by Pekka Saarinen.

Romanian-born Radu Lupu joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C-minor which is one of his rare concerti in a minor key. The 71-year-old pianist is white-haired and bearded like a patriarch. If you love Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G-minor, as I do, you’ll appreciate the wistfulness of this concerto. Lupu played very quietly. In particular, the second Larghetto movement has a lovely simple melody which seemed almost free-form, and Lupu explored it reflectively.

Indeed, Mozart seems to have been experimenting with this piece. He took his time; the concerto is one of his longest. He wrote several anticipatory endings and he never got around to composing the expected cadenzas to lead-in to the conclusions of his movements (Lupu composed his own). Sometimes the music seemed to be beautifully suspended in midair. The concerto was not published during Mozart’s lifetime.

Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 was an appropriate companion piece on this program because the composer was a depressed man. The symphony sounds pessimistic, exemplified by a melancholy bassoon in the Adagio. Some people find jubilation in the first movement, but I’m struck by the slight dissonance between brass and strings. Schumann referred to it as a contrapuntal combination of two distinct melodic lines; but if you want to be dramatic about it, you might say it’s a bit schizophrenic.

Schumann had delusions about being poisoned, and he attempted suicide. He was to be diagnosed with dementia praecox and committed to a mental asylum. Present-day psychiatrists believe that Schumann had bipolar disorder. He died at 46, ten years after he wrote this symphony.

Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission.

Sasha Cooke. Photo by Dario Acosta.
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano. Photo by Dario Acosta.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin – conductor; Sasha Cooke – mezzo-soprano; Radu Lupu – piano; playing Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24; Schumann: Symphony No. 2 was performed May 3, 5 & 6, 2017 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future concerts and shows, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.