Reflections of an American pianist on American music
Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony — subtitled “Age of Anxiety”, based on W.H. Auden’s epic poem — is one of the staples of the 20th Century piano concerto repertoire. Auden profiles a group of people and their inner psyches as they navigate themselves through a post-WWII world, when a large portion of the planet had been shaken by a highly traumatic period and was in a state of reassessing life. Bernstein musically captures Auden’s emotional journey through a series of four movements including an often-wild and often-intimate Theme and Variations, an emotionally ponderous Dirge, and a raucous jazzy movement scored solely for a vast percussion section and piano. While the piano plays a prominent role, Bernstein treats it almost as a part of the orchestra (or a character in the narrative), a likely affirmation for titling the work a Symphony as opposed to a Concerto.
I did not know the Age of Anxiety well before beginning to learn it for a performance in 2016 at Wisconsin’s Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, but the piece quickly drew me in emotionally and got under my skin in a terrific way. The experience of playing it with orchestra is an unforgettable one, as it is scored for a gigantic ensemble, sometimes creating a sound in which one becomes completely engulfed — much like the emotions of the original poem. Consequently, as my 2018 schedule began to come together, I was thrilled to be scheduled to play it three more times, as many orchestras around the country are celebrating the life of this great musician.
The first of those three times was this past December, leading into the Bernstein centennial year, with the student orchestra at Boston’s Longy School of Music of Bard College, where I have recently joined the Piano Faculty. Longy’s Bernstein celebration was in two parts: the night before performing the Age of Anxiety, I had the great privilege of playing a large group of Bernstein’s “Anniversaries” in collaboration with the composer’s daughter Jamie, who presented narrations and slides of the dedicatees of the Anniversaries, which included his friends Aaron Copland and Stephen Sondheim, his first piano teacher and subsequent personal secretary Helen Coates, as well as various family members. It is difficult to properly describe how incredible it was to share the stage with someone who obviously knew Leonard Bernstein so closely, and to perform these pieces so beautifully illuminated by Jamie’s personal anecdotes and family photos.
My next outing of the Age of Anxiety will be this month, March 17th with the Rhode Island Philharmonic under the baton of Victor Yampolsky. And looking ahead, an American Pianists Association full-circle experience will take place for me when I open the Omaha Symphony’s season performing the work with Thomas Wilkins, with whom I first performed over a decade ago when he conducted the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for a special evening, just after my winning the 2006 American Pianists Awards. For that concert, Maestro Wilkins and I collaborated on another great American piano concerto, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, for which — incidentally — I will be joining my home state of Ohio’s Canton Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann this coming November.
For all these degrees of separation, it all comes back to one common thread: the celebration of American music and American artists. As an American artist, it is a humbling and exciting experience to channel that celebration through the performance of these great American works. It is of great importance to me to keep these works heard by the public and recognized as great works of art. My two commercial solo recording projects have been conceived in this vein as well; my first, a disc on the harmonia mundi usa label resulting from the American Pianists prize, contained variations by Americans Ellis Kohs and Aaron Copland. My most recent project, for Steinway & Sons, contains sixteen of William Bolcom’s brilliant Piano Rags. Such unique voices can be found in each of these composers, all worthy of being spotlighted. Yet, through these vastly different voices, one can always hear American flavor, much like one hears Poland in Chopin’s Polonaises or Finland in a Sibelius’ Symphonies or Spain in Albéniz’s Iberia.
Not only does an artist need the material to be performed and celebrated; one also needs people and organizations to support this mission. I can honestly say that the American Pianists Association is the greatest champion in this mission of supporting American artists. No other musical organization of its kind is as committed, in such an all-encompassing way, to furthering this cause. Without the American Pianists Association, I would not have had my first performance of Gershwin’s Concerto with such a world-class ensemble as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and would not have gotten to know one of our great present-day American conductors, Thomas Wilkins; and thus probably wouldn’t be performing the Age of Anxiety in Omaha in September. I am forever indebted to American Pianists Association for its commitment to all my American musical colleagues, and feel so honored to be part of a list of American artists dedicated to promoting and performing our great American classical music. My hope is that our celebrations can continue beyond simply the centennial years of our most revered composers, and enter our daily regimen.
Spencer Myer is winner of the 2006 American Pianists Awards. His full performance schedule is available at spencermyer.com.