“Really? Jesus arms?” I loud-whispered to my concertmate.
I was frustrated with conductor Steven Sloan. When he raised his arms as if giving a Papal benediction at the conclusion of The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives, I was bordering on flabbergastation but not because of the quality of the performance.
If I were to be generous I would say that maestro Sloan was referring to theatrics which Leonard Bernstein used at the end of a performance of Bach Mass in B Minor. Bernstein ended the music in the crucifix position. This San Diego Symphony concert, on Saturday, November 17, was dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, so an homage could have made sense.
Unfortunately, Sloan had already trampled Copland’s Appalachian Spring, so I was in no mood. Again, the music-making was stellar. Appalachian Spring is on the Mount Rushmore of American music, and Sloan’s conducting set it further into stone.
The sun was setting on Appalachia at the conclusion of the music. The Shakers had sung their ecstatic rendition of “Simple Gifts”. The delicate sounds of the the twilight woods were spinning out of the orchestra, and suddenly a trumpet player stood up and walked off stage. Following him was a solemn procession of a few woodwind players.
I was yanked out of Copland’s soundscape and into “What the hell is going on?”
I saw Sloan hold the orchestra with one hand while he positioned the score of The Unanswered Question with the other. He proceeded to start that piece with no gap. A few in the audience started to applaud Appalachian Spring, but they were shushed by philistines who don’t know when Appalachian Spring ends.
Halfway through The Unanswered Question a gentleman in front of me leaned over to his concertmate and said, “This is stupid.” While I can’t agree with him, I will say I find the piece to be gimmicky and low in artistic merit.
This was the second time I’ve heard The Unanswered Question performed by the San Diego Symphony. It feels as though the piece was performed three years ago, but it was probably four or five. Whatever the case, more than once every 10-15 years is too much, especially when it interrupts Appalachian Spring.
The choice to run roughshod over the end of Appalachian Spring combined with the Jesus arms and wearing no tie with his second button open was too much maestro Sloan for me.
The big piece of music was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2: The Age of Anxiety. While this is called a symphony, it is a piano concerto. The conclusion of the piece was as good as anything I’ve ever heard, but the bulk of the composition is forgettable. Soloist Orli Shaham played well, but she was far from settled into the piece. This music probably isn’t performed enough for any soloist to own.
The Age of Anxiety was written five years after Bernstein penned On the Town. Musical theater is the idiom in which Bernstein will continue to be venerated. It is where we hear “the real Lenny”. In Bernstein’s serious music I get the impression that he is aware that he is Leonard Bernstein and that his compositional voice is infected with his status as conductor.