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'Age of Anxiety' brings Shaham and Robertson together

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 14, 2013 - Countless people, even a president of Amherst College where Robert Frost taught, believed that “The Road Not Taken,” was his manifesto celebrating major moments when life paths are chosen. However, in correspondence and at least one interview, Frost explained that really was not his intent. Rather, it was an attempt at irony, suggesting at once the universal truth that few decisions are irrevocable and his personal irreverence regarding regret.

This sort of disparity between the author’s intent and others’ interpretations literally plays out this weekend at Powell Hall as the St. Louis Symphony and pianist Orli Shaham present “American Masters,” a concert that features our city’s first couple of classical music, Shaham and her husband, symphony Music Director and Conductor David Robertson.

Note: The John Adams work is a St. Louis premiere. The symphony's website says City Noir is "often described as cinematic, the lyrical work combines sassy and savvy together offering a glimpse of a bygone era in a great American city."

Shaham will perform in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.” Bernstein’s piece is based on a poem of the same name as the symphony. This one by W.H. Auden.

Bernstein acknowledged he was inspired by Auden’s work, borrowed its structure but created his own interpretation of the work. And that is where the complicated aspects of the work lies, for Bernstein’s symphony, which was written for piano and orchestra, has a structural complexity that is unusual and profound in its form, Shaham said.

“It’s confusing,” she said. “It is really a concerto in a sort of symphonic structure — how he combines those genres and the way he uses the piano in combinations with an entire section is incredible.”

Shaham pointed out the complex co-mingling of sound in “The Masque.”

In that section, Bernstein brings together the piano with the percussion section and includes a harp.

Bernstein himself, in an essay he wrote in March 1949, says the poem began to affect him when he first read it in 1947. “From that moment, the composition of a symphony based on ‘The Age of Anxiety’ acquired an almost compulsive quality, and I have been writing it steadily since then, in Taos, in Philadelphia, in Richmond, Mass., in Tel-Aviv, in planes, in hotel lobbies, and finally (this week preceding the premiere) in Boston.”

In that essay, he added that the orchestration had been done while he was on a month-long tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

“I imagine that the conception of a symphony with piano solo emerges from the extreme personal identification of myself with the poem,” Bernstein wrote. “In this sense, the pianist provides an almost autobiographical mirror in which he sees himself. … The essential line of the poem (and the music) is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.”

The interpretation of the composer leads pianist and conductor to collaborate, something Shaham and Robertson have mastered on and off stage. As parents of two young boys and independent artists, the couple does not have the luxury of daily interaction. In fact, this performance marks the first time in several years the two have been together for Valentine’s Day.

Though the Bernstein’s piece offers “sensual innuendo,” Shaham said, it has much more going on, as Bernstein himself acknowledged during a press conference in 1977 in Berlin: “What happens … is anything but optimistic. In the poem, everyone is completely drunk and trying desperately to have a good time. This feeling of desperation is there all the time, and they are having a good time but the kind of good time which one hour later is horrible.”

He explained that the scene takes place in a bar, and the story centers on four people. Yet the subtext focuses on the larger quest for fulfillment and answers, a sense of place and connection, pain versus satisfaction. In any case, it is a lesson in contemplation, underpinnings and one artist’s interpretation and then another’s.

And this is Conductor David Robertson’s signature — to create a musical program that encourages the audience to think. In fact, Symphony publications manager and blogger Eddie Silva dubbed it “Robertson’s M.O.”

Elizabeth Harris Krasnoff is a freelance writer.