Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This coming weekend, the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform Leonard Bernstein's second symphony, "The Age of Anxiety." And here to talk about the work is our friend Marin Alsop, music director of the BSO. Maestra, thanks very much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: This is a great British poet, W.H. Auden - wrote the poem "Age of Anxiety," and the music piece begins with - let's listen - a couple of lonely clarinets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

SIMON: What's the piece capturing by beginning this way?

ALSOP: Well, the poem and the piece of music opens with four characters - three men and a woman, all strangers. They're sitting in a bar, and each one is lost in his or her own thoughts, but each one is acutely aware of that sense of universal loneliness. And they're each ruminating about their own, individual lives; and gradually, the poem begins to fall into their unconscious mind. And every time the poem starts sinking into this state of mind, Bernstein represents that by a descending scale. The first time we hear it, it's represented by the flute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

SIMON: Now, this is a recording of the piece by Leonard Bernstein, conducting the New York Philharmonic. The soloist we're going to hear is Philippe Entremont, and his solo will come in just after that descending scale. Kind of melds into this next section, called "The Seven Ages."

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

SIMON: Marin, what's the piano bring in here?

ALSOP: Well, in the poem, Auden - W.H. Auden begins with birth and innocence. And I think this opening piano solo, which is so simple and so beautiful, represents that state of existence. And this is followed then - he's exploring the seven ages of life. And Bernstein musically portrays this by having a set of variations. Each emerges seamlessly from the other, and we go through the different stages of life. Adolescence is represented by a variation which is in 5-8 time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

ALSOP: Five-eight is a - it's a really awkward - if you had to dance to 5-8, you'd need two legs of different lengths; and you know, in adolescence, where we're all trying to fit in, and you just can never fit in. And from that variation, it goes to, you know, early adulthood where suddenly, you fit in too well and you don't want to fit in anymore; and the monotony and kind of robotic existence can be overwhelming. Eventually, he goes through all of the ages of life but toward the end of these first seven variations, that theme of loneliness returns.

SIMON: So there's this tense, forbidding section. Then it turns a corner, and we hear some jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

SIMON: So is that there as kind of like - to be an instruction, to say between these profound period of aloneness, why not kick up our heels while we have the chance?

ALSOP: Well, you know, I think sometimes Bernstein just got fed up with all of this weighty, existential searching, and he just couldn't resist a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

ALSOP: And ultimately, I think there is incredible meaning in that; that when in doubt, just have a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

ALSOP: For Bernstein - I think very much like for Beethoven - it was a question of believing in humanity. Bernstein believed fundamentally in the goodness of human beings. And the idea of faith is a thread throughout his music. And in this piece, even though they grapple with all of these - sort of a sense of hopelessness throughout the piece, in the end we hear this beautiful trumpet melody, which represents faith. And we hear memories coming back from their entire journey through this epic poem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

ALSOP: Bernstein - he wrote three symphonies and each of them is - is nothing like a symphony is supposed to be. I mean, maybe that's why I think they're so fantastically wonderful. And Bernstein himself said that he felt that every single piece of music he wrote was a piece for the theater. He knows it has this dramatic component,. But it's a complex, it's a very deep work; and I think at first, people didn't understand the depth of the work. But I find it to be a piece that I experience differently every time I work on it, every time I hear it. So for me, it's really, truly one of the great 20th century pieces.

SIMON: This coming weekend, Maestra Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - along with Jean-Yves Thibaudet - will perform Leonard Bernstein's second symphony, "The Age of Anxiety." Maestra, as always, wonderful to be back with you. Thanks so much.

ALSOP: Thanks for having me. Great to talk to you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYMPHONY, "THE AGE OF ANXIETY")

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.