For the past year, Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein by performing some of his greatest works for orchestra. They’ll conclude their season and their Bernstein tribute with the composer’s midcentury masterpiece, “The Age of Anxiety,” June 22 through 24 at Helzberg Hall. Also on the program is Hector Berlioz’s bad drug trip, the “Symphonie Fantastique.”
In 1947, W.H. Auden published a book-length poem, “The Age of Anxiety,” which earned some of the worst reviews of his career. But there were other more prescient readers, like T.S. Eliot, who called it Auden’s “best work to date.”
Written in a style reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, the poem is set in a bar in post-war New York City as four characters search for meaning in a meaningless world. Since its publication, the poem has come to be considered one of the greatest of the 20th century and, indeed, has given its name to our current disquieting age.
Bernstein was drawn to “The Age of Anxiety” because it explored a theme that occupied him throughout his life: “The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematical search for faith,” Bernstein wrote.
Auden’s poem proved perfect fodder for a new work, which Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony commissioned from Bernstein in 1949. The 31-year-old Bernstein was the piano soloist at the premiere. Pianist Ran Dank will be the soloist when the Kansas City Symphony performs the work.
“The Age of Anxiety” is a fitting way to conclude the Symphony’s yearlong Bernstein celebration, Stern says.
“Bernstein loved the Auden book and was knocked out by the story and by the conceit of these lonely souls coming together looking for some meaning,” Stern said. “They go through the seven stages of life with flirting and alcohol and convivial talk and trying to find faith, trying to find the meaning of life, and in the end, they go home alone.
“There is a question of loneliness. Remember when it was written. There was a great deal of uncertainty. There was war. There was a crisis of faith, and it was a reflection of Bernstein’s own crisis of faith also.”
Stern says “The Age of Anxiety” is an apt summation of Bernstein because it so clearly reflects different aspects of the composer.
“Bernstein was a pianist and he wrote this vehicle for solo piano, which gives it a kind of autobiographical component,” Stern said. “And from a musical point of view, it allowed him to fuse his search for a new musical path, a new language, to really put jazz into symphonic music in a virtuosic way which was not imitative.
“It is a fusion of styles and it is wholly American and it’s based on literature, and Lenny was a voracious of reader of everything, prose, poetry, everything.”
To conclude the program is Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which also draws its inspiration, at least in part, from a book, Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.”
Through its five movements, the symphony follows the feverish dream of an artist who poisons himself with opium after suffering unrequited love. The work is autobiographical, as Berlioz himself endured the rejection of Irish actress Harriet Smithson, whom he became smitten with after watching her perform in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
The “Symphonie Fantastique” quivers with its own anxiety, as the artist trembles with fear at the thought of his rejection and hallucinates his own execution before the work ends with cackling witches and goblins performing a black Mass and a diabolical version of the “Dies Irae” chant.
Bernstein was a big fan of Berlioz’s symphony.
“Bernstein, who was not the most inhibited of performers, reveled in this piece,” Stern said. “He threw himself into performances of the Berlioz with unrestrained enthusiasm. He would have liked this pairing of ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ with ‘Age of Anxiety.’ ”
As Bernstein cautioned his audience in one of his Young People’s Concerts: “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.”
8 p.m. June 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. June 24. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$85. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.
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