Works contrasting the vicissitudes of life in the mid-20th century and in legendary Greek days are the focus of the next pair of Buffalo Philharmonic concerts to be conducted by Maximiano Valdes, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 4 in Kleinhans Music Hall.
Since his last appearance on the Kleinhans podium, Valdes has been immersed in the scores for Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 ("The Age of Anxiety") and Stravinsky's oratorio "Oedipus Rex," preparing for this program. It will be the first of four consecutive Philharmonic concert pairs to be conducted by the orchestra's new music director.
Bernstein based his Second Symphony on the W. H. Auden poem "The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue," which speaks of the alienation of three men and a woman, who begin their urban spiritual odyssey in a Manhattan bar. In Bernstein's score a solo piano functions as a sort of outside observer, a detached sensibility commenting on and occasionally engaging the lonely foursome in their search for resolution of their unsettled feelings.
"I think it is Bernstein's best work," says Valdes. "It's a young Bernstein expressing himself here. He premiered the piece in 1949 at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony. Koussevitzky conducted, with Bernstein playing the piano."
Another area connection surfaces here. "The Age of Anxiety" has been recorded twice, once in the early 1950s with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and again in the mid-1980s when the composer led the Israel Philharmonic. And in both cases the pianist was Lukas Foss, former Buffalo Philharmonic music director.
For next weekend's Buffalo Philharmonic performances, the pianist will be the well-known Buffalo artist Claudia Hoca.
Bernstein says he found "The Age of Anxiety" was a "fascinating and hair-raising" poem, and that his desire to write a symphony based on it "acquired an almost compulsive quality." He was so obsessed with the idea, apparently, that he admits to having worked on it wherever he could, including airplanes and hotel lobbies.
The symphony is organized in faithful observance of the six sections of Auden's poem, but Bernstein has further broken them down into two major parts. The entire work is played without pause.
The correlation of Auden's poem and Bernstein's music goes roughly as follows. Part 1's very short first section is called "The Prologue" and depicts the woman and three men in the bar with the lonely and echoing intertwining of two clarinets and a long descending passage which the composer says "acts as a bridge into the realm of the unconscious, where most of the poem takes place."
The second and third sections of Part 1 are called "The Seven Ages" and "The Seven Stages." Each consists of seven variations, not on a single theme, but rather as a progressive development of some element of the preceding variation. Very loosely, these variations correspond to the increasingly alcohol-propelled discussions of the four characters as they try to resolve their problems. Although they fail, they do emerge with a feeling of unity through shared experience, and Part 1 ends with what Bernstein calls "a hectic, though indecisive, close."
The three sections of Part 2 are more clearly symbolic.
"The Dirge" finds the foursome in a cab on the way to the girl's apartment, mourning the lack of a father figure with all the right answers. The music is severe, with a contrasting central section which the composer likes to describe as having an "almost Brahmsian romanticism."
Although the piano is an active observer most of the time, "The Masque" provides its most dominant and outgoing moments, a very jazzy and irresistibly rhythmic interlude representing a kind of guilt-ridden but lively party in the girl's apartment.
As the party wanes and leaves a kind of "morning-after" emptiness, it is succeeded by "The Epilogue," in which the trumpet intones "something pure." This motif ultimately is picked up by the orchestra and recognized by the partiers as the symbol of some sort of re-established faith.
Valdes is drawn to "The Age of Anxiety" for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Bernstein once told him the piano is himself in the score.
"I wanted to play a major work by an American composer," Valdes said. "And since I have been close to Leonard Bernstein and admire him very much, I thought it was the best idea to give him a sort of tribute by putting his piece in the program, especially when paired with a work by Stravinsky, with whom he had such close contact when young."
If the protagonists in "The Age of Anxiety" are driven by the nebulous psychological pressures of today, then the hero in Stravinsky's treatment of the Sophoclean legend of "Oedipus Rex" was doubly tormented by the more direct threat to his mental stability imposed by the grisly prophesy of the Oracle at Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother. This is the well-known mythological tragedy limned by Stravinsky.
Completed in 1927, Stravinsky labeled "Oedipus Rex" an opera-oratorio in two acts. It has been performed many times in the concert or oratorio version, less frequently as a staged opera.
The composer enlisted Jean Cocteau to provide a new text for his monumental drama, but in order to give it what he called "a stately bearing entirely in keeping with the majesty of the ancient legend," he then had Cocteau's text translated into Latin by Jean Danielou.
In what may seem to some an uncharacteristically accommodating gesture to the audience on Stravinsky's part, he then added to the performing forces a narrator (specified to be in evening dress) who periodically describes the upcoming action in the local language.
Adding to the symmetry of the Philharmonic program, "Oedipus Rex," like "The Age of Anxiety," is divided into two acts, and is then subdivided into three episodes each, demarked by the narrator's commentary.
In addition to the principal characters, Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, Stravinsky has scored his opera-oratorio for four other singing parts, the narrator and a male chorus.
The music, coming from the composer's neoclassical period, is of an austerity and grandeur which suits the mythological remoteness of the tragedy as well as the Latin text. There is no free-flowing and supple lyricism. Rather, much of the music has a chanting, declamatory, incantatory quality.
And yet, within these expressive confines there are moments of exquisite beauty, as in the Gloria chorus, which concludes Act 1 and reappears early in Act 2. This wonderful chorus achieves its absolutely riveting effect through streaming choral lines and brass gilt around the edges, and is given emotional wallop by some of Stravinsky's most subtle use of key modulation.
"Stravinsky," says Maximiano Valdes, "always had the idea that he was not a composer in the romantic sense of the word, but was sort of an artisan working with notes and with songs. He did not compose in a rush of inspiration, but methodically added a note here, took one out there, until the finished composition sounded the way he had envisioned it."
Few works of Stravinsky's can more clearly illustrate this to an audience than "Oedipus Rex."
"The concert version of 'Oedipus Rex' looks to the past with a contemporary expression," Valdes says.
Joining Valdes and the Buffalo Philharmonic in next weekend's performances will be English tenor Ian Caley as Oedipus, English mezzo Elizabeth Laurence as Jocasta, Buffalo tenor Gary Burgess as the Shepherd, and bass John Cheek as Tiresias; bass-baritone Mark Doss will sing two roles, Creon and the Messenger.
The narrator will be Jeremy Noble, professor of music at the University at Buffalo, and the Buffalo Schola Cantorum Men's Chorus will be prepared for the performance by its director, Thomas Swan.