Bernstein and Schuman close out SSO season, Bernstein festival, highlighting Schwarz’s legacy

William Schuman

To close the Seattle Symphony’s current season, Schwarz assembled a program of Leonard Bernstein and William Schuman works. This season finale also closes out the Seattle Celebrates Bernstein festival — a city wide effort to honor the 20th anniversary of Bernstein’s death. Personal struggle has been a theme in season finales over the last few seasons. With the help of Schwarz and the SSO, audiences have probed Mahler’s despairing Sixth Symphony and last year Aaron Jay Kernis’ pleading Third Symphony, a world premiere. Leonard Bernstein’s personal torment, doubt, and faith, embodied by his Second Symphony, were the fundamental qualities of Friday’s struggle.

Sandwiched between Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and the Age of Anxiety, was William Schuman’s Third Symphony. Schuman’s Third is widely considered — along with Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony and Roy Harris’ Third Symphony — one of the three most important American “symphonies” from the last century. Schuman’s style is taut, but robust. His third symphony, set in only two movements, exemplifies these traits. Each movement is divided into two smaller sections. And, each section is a different traditional form. The first movement attends to the passacaglia and fugue forms; the second, chorale and toccata. Schuman’s textures were the most transparent during the passacaglia section. The orchestra — especially the winds, brass, and percussion — were in top form.

Bernstein’s three symphonies aren’t for everyone. Wilder concoctions than Schuman’s, they are often pensive and introspective essays saturated with drama. The Kaddish Symphony uses spoken narration to achieve many of the work’s charged, dramatic points. By contrast, the Age of Anxiety relies on a solo piano to amplify drama. The Age of Anxiety isn’t a concerto though. The solo piano’s role is more like the solo violin in Rimsky Korsakov’s Scherhazade. Even though Dichter is probably best known for his duo recitals with Cipa Dichter (his pianist wife) he does perform regularly as a soloist, like he did on Friday.

Age of Anxiety shares the same name and same narrative arc as WH Auden’s poem. Auden’s poem traces the story of four people struggling with the emptiness of modern life. The orchestra, Schwarz, and Dichter built on the success of Schuman’s symphony from the first half, turning in a strong performance of a piece as good as anything Bernstein wrote for the stage. The winds deserve special note again. Two clarinet solos snaked their way through the hall, setting up the piece’s knotty moods and alerting the audience to get ready for Bernstein’s realization of Auden’s poem. Later in the symphony, flute, bassoon and oboe supplied their own arresting contributions. The brass too were once again a highlight, blazing through their own parts with insight and authority. So to were the percussion. The section’s contribution during the fifth movement’s jazzy, party atmosphere especially proved the considerable growth the section has achieved in recent years.

This was Schwarz’s last season finale as music director. When he takes the podium next year at the same time to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, he will be saying goodbye to an orchestra, audience, and classical music community he helped build and promote to the rest of the world. In a way, this year’s SSO season finale is emblematic of Schwarz’s time in Seattle, and would be an appropriate send off for the maestro if the concerts this weekend were closing out next season instead. Schwarz always paid attention to American music of the middle part of the last century. As a result, he is a rarity among his musical colleagues who tend to drift over this period of American music except for an occasional cameo by Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring or Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This emphasis allowed the orchestra and Schwarz to record for Naxos, filling holes in the American classical music discography, while other orchestra’s vanished from record store shelves. It even filled season long festivals of American music earlier in the decade.

The fertile period of the middle part of the last century produced among others: Copland, Bernstein, Barber, Piston Schuman, Diamond, Foss and many others. These composers, and others, confirmed America’s relevance in the classical music world. Collectively, they established a unique musical voice for a young country without the same history as Germany. For better or worse (and there are plenty of people who believe it is for the worse) these composers and their works were part of the Seattle Symphony’s repertory under Schwarz. This aspect of Schwarz’s legacy is worth applauding and worth remembering when a new music director is chosen. It is a part of Schwarz’s legacy I will miss but always cherish.


3 thoughts on “Bernstein and Schuman close out SSO season, Bernstein festival, highlighting Schwarz’s legacy

  1. I’ve been looking for comments on my performance. Yours is the second one I’ve found! Thank you very much. It was an honor to sing in that performance. God bless you!

    -Ben R.

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