Mid-century America saw a bountiful flowering of homegrown music in an effort to establish a distinctly American voice in music, and a quest for the symphonic equivalent of the Great American Novel. Much of the music has since regrettably fallen out of vogue, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2 appear on Tuesday night’s CSO program at Ravinia, in a summer of otherwise largely uninspired programming. By coincidence, this week has become something of a renaissance of the American symphony in Chicago as the following evening concertgoers in Millennium Park were afforded the opportunity to hear the Grant Park Orchestra in symphonies of Roy Harris and Walter Piston.

David Zinman © Patrick Gipson | Ravinia
David Zinman
© Patrick Gipson | Ravinia

Titled The Age of Anxiety after its inspiration in W.H. Auden’s poem of the same title, Bernstein’s second symphony features a daunting part for solo piano, given a bracing account by Misha Dichter. The symphony is conceived in two halves, each further divided into three sections, mirroring the structure of the source text (and indeed, none of Bernstein’s three symphonies bear much resemblance to the standard form of the genre). Nonetheless, Bernstein’s work is more loosely evocative than directly programmatic, and one need not have mastered Auden’s often turgid language to make sense of the symphony.

“The Prologue” initiates the piece with a clarinet duet, strained and pained, although the desired effect was largely marred by the deafening buzz of Ravinia’s resident cicada population who apparently aren’t well-versed in concert etiquette – a sacrifice one must make in hearing music al fresco. The piano made its first entrance in “The Seven Ages”, itself a set of seven variations, with Dichter playing from a score so heavily marked and tattered one wondered how it was legible. The variations contravene tradition in that they eschew a common theme and instead build off an element of the previous, creating an anxious state of flux. The second variation introduced a more animated gesture that would recur; the seventh was striking in its return of the opening clarinet theme, descending octaves in the harps, and the piano distilled to a single note line.

“The Seven Stages” comprised a further set of seven variations, launched by a broad theme in the strings. The ensuing variation morphed matters into a grotesque waltz, eventually leading to cataclysmic climax. “The Dirge” opened Part II, with the piano introducing a 12-tone row before unashamedly enveloping in what Bernstein himself called a Brahmsian romanticism in this music of striking contrast.  An even more garish contrast was to be found in “The Masque”, its jazzy rhythms and good humor seemingly so out of place. Dichter’s speedy fingers played with a wonderful abandon, augmented by a colorful percussion battery including xylophone and temple blocks.

Opening with raucous Broadway lavishness, “The Epilogue” very quickly veers into a much darker direction. The piano soloist is meant to become increasingly detached and disembodied, and much of the writing was relegated to Mary Sauer on an upright piano. Christopher Martin’s muted trumpet heightened the forlorn atmosphere, answered by the somber strings. Dichter had one last shining moment in the muscular cadenza which obliquely suggests previously heard ideas, and in the work’s final moments, faith is introduced, glowing in its opulence. The Age of Anxiety is a staple of Dichter’s repertoire and he was undeniably impressive, however, it often sounded as if the orchestra was struggling to grasp the idiom. This could have been due to the absence of a number of principals, but that an American symphony would be like a foreign language to an American orchestra is symptomatic of a much larger issue.

David Zinman and Misha Dichter © Patrick Gipson | Ravinia
David Zinman and Misha Dichter
© Patrick Gipson | Ravinia

The CSO was much more in their comfort zone in another Second Symphony, that of Brahms, although I’m not so sure that David Zinman (in the first of his two-night residency engagements) managed to illuminate anything that hadn’t already been there in this work’s multiple appearances throughout the last few seasons. Zinman emphasized the first movement’s spaciousness in opting for the full repeat of the lengthy exposition, although greater differentiation would have better justified that decision. There was ample fire in the development, however, and the warmth of Daniel Gingrich’s horn was a true standout.

The richness of the low strings was deeply moving in the serene slow movement; the Scherzo was highlighted by the simple, rustic playing of oboist Alex Klein and the mercurial strings in charming interludes. The Finale started quietly but quickly grew in exuberance, the playful winds – worthy of note were clarinetists Stephen Williamson and J. Lawrie Bloom – giving way to more passionate strings before a joyous conclusion, the bucolic radiance of this symphony so fitting for a tranquil summer night at Ravinia.