BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
No, you don't have to read W.H. Auden's long, impenetrable, Pulitzer Prize-winning poem The Age of Anxiety to understand what inspired Leonard Bernstein to compose a piece for solo piano and orchestra with the same title for his second symphony.
Sara Davis Buechner has already done the work for the audience. "I certainly read the poem, more in terms of getting the general atmosphere of it," says Buechner, the piano soloist with the Florida Orchestra this weekend. "I think Bernstein saw his life in New York in the poem."
Bernstein's Age of Anxiety takes the format of Auden's 1947 poem — a "Baroque Eclogue" in six parts about three men and a woman in a New York bar— for his jazzy, rhythmic symphony. The composer played the piano solo when the work was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949.
"The key to playing something well is understanding the personality of the composer," Buechner says. "Age of Anxiety is very much like Bernstein. He was a multifaceted person, of course. He could be terribly glib and cosmopolitan and at the same time down and dirty. A synthesis of highbrow and lowbrow. He could talk to a truck driver and make him understand classical music. The symphony begins and closes with very evocative, profound music, but at the same time the whole thing is set in a bar, where people are drinking and smoking and getting bombed."
The pianist met Bernstein 25 or 30 years ago. It was a time in the famous composer-conductor's life when he was drinking heavily.
"I had a friend who was a cellist who had been invited to play at a tribute concert for Bernstein at Harvard, and I went with him," Buechner says. "I was just stunned that Bernstein came in wearing a cape, chain smoked and had a glass of Scotch and was drunk, at 10:30 in the morning. But that was him. He was still one of the great American originals of the 20th century."
The Florida Orchestra has an interesting Bernstein connection. Charles Harmon, the acting assistant librarian, was the conductor's assistant and music librarian in the 1980s in New York. He remembers Bernstein conducting Age of Anxiety with the orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
"One of the things I really like about the symphony is that each of the variations in it — there are 14 variations — is a variation on some aspect of the previous variation," Harmon says. "It's not your typical Haydn or Mozart variation. It's a more subtle form of variation. At that point in the late '40s when he composed it, I think Lenny was still showing the influence of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and other composers who were the big names then, but there is definitely a real Bernstein that comes through in every single bar."
Stuart Malina will be conducting The Age of Anxiety for the first time, but he once played the pianino/celesta part in the orchestra in a performance of the work at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., with Lukas Foss as the piano soloist. Bernstein thought Foss played the work better than anyone.
"I think Bernstein's output as a so-called serious composer gets a smaller appreciation because of the huge appreciation for his theater work, Candide and West Side Story and On the Town," Malina says. "But The Age of Anxiety shows him in a beautiful light."
Malina, the orchestra's principal guest conductor, also has Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and Schumann's Symphony No. 3, Rhenish, on his season-opening program.
Buechner, 53, has the kind of life story that the ever-questing Bernstein would have appreciated. For the first 36 years of her life, she was a man, David Buechner, with a prominent career as a pianist. But then she came out as a transgender woman, and for some years, her concert engagements were few and far between. Now she is on the piano faculty at the University of British Columbia, and her career is back on track. Right now she is in the midst of playing 10 different concertos in three months.
When Buechner reflects on the transformation that took place in her life, she thinks of what a friend recently said.
"One of the big duties we have as human beings is to be authentic, this friend told me," she says. "I feel sad that I spent so much of my life not being authentic, but very pleased and relieved that I can live the rest of it being authentic. I would wish that of every human being, that we have the good fortune and grace to be authentic in our lives."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.