Written by: David M. Rice
I spent ten days at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, which brings performers, teachers and students together, enabling music-lovers to experience a wide range of activities and also to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Thursday, July 7 / Thursday, July 14, Seiji Ozawa Hall
The first of a three-part series curated by Emanuel Ax, with a “Pathways from Prague” theme, combining his career-long devotion to Antonín Dvořák’s compositions with a newly discovered affection for the music of Leoš Janáček.
In the first half, Ax partnered Paul Appleby’s stirring rendition of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared. As much a drama as a song-cycle, it is the first-person narrative of Janík, a young Czech farmer who becomes infatuated, obsessed, and ultimately seduced by Zefka, a dark-skinned Roma woman. Contralto Emily Marvosh made a captivating Zefka, interacting with Appleby to depict the two characters’ initial encounter and ensuing sexual liaison, as an offstage Greek chorus (sopranos Sarah Brailey & Sonja Tengblad and mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski) offered sweetly harmonized commentary and advanced the narrative. Appleby convincingly expressed Janík’s feelings of guilt and shame at the forbidden relationship, stating that he would sooner cut off his little finger than have Gypsy in-laws. Yet, declaring that no one can escape his fate, he ultimately bids farewell forever to his family, home and village to leave with Zefka, who has borne his child. Ax brilliantly colored the poetic text’s many depictions of nature – birds, fireflies, trees, the darkness of night and the light of dawn – as well as illustrating Janík’s touching, one-sided conversations with his team of oxen and adding emphasis to his dramatic emotional outbursts. In a mood-changing interlude, alternately dance-like and thunderous, Ax set the stage for Janík’s acceptance of the inevitability of his leaving with Zefka. As he departs with her at the cycle’s end, he repeats that no-one can escape his fate. English translations of the Czech text were displayed on video screens.
The second half was the Dover Quartet’s reading of Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G (Opus 106), composed soon after his return to Prague from his three-year sojourn in America. This work has little of the nationalistic flavor that colors its famous predecessor, the Twelfth (‘American’) Quartet, and many of his other compositions, placing it closer to contemporaneously prevailing European compositional styles. The Dover musicians (Joel Link & Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and Camden Shaw) excelled in shaping and coloring Dvořák’s beautiful melodies, deftly managing changes of mood and mode. All four displayed impressive technique.
The second recital featured part-songs and piano music by Janáček and Dvořák, with some American music inspired by Dvořák thrown in for good measure. The eight singers of the low-voice ensemble Cantus led off with six Janáček songs, with themes ranging from religion (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ and ‘Ave Maria’ – Lord Byron’s poem, not the Catholic prayer) to love and parting, war and peace. The four tenors, two baritones and two basses superbly negotiated Janáček’s intricate counterpoint and harmonies.
Next, Mackenzie Melemed offered a sensitive reading of Janáček’s Piano Sonata, 1.X. 1905, (From the Street…), written as a tribute to a young man slain as he demonstrated in the composer’s hometown of Brno, advocating creation of a Czech-speaking university there. Before it was ever performed, Janáček burned the third movement, and later threw the first two movements into the Vltava, but fortunately a copy had been preserved by a student of the composer. The opening movement, ‘Foreboding’, is dominated by falling figures and punctuated by potent outbursts, but it turns more pensive at the end, setting the mood for ‘Death’, suggestive of a funeral march, replete with tolling bells, that grows in harmonic complexity and dramatic intensity until the cortege resumes its measured pace and finally fades away.
Emanuel Ax joined Melemed for a rousing rendition of five Dvořák Slavonic Dances, three from Opus 46 (1, 7 & 8), and two from Opus 72 (2 & 7). These marvelous works are best-known in their orchestral settings, but the four-hands versions exude a joyful energy that beckons listeners to the dance floor. Melemed voiced gorgeous melodic lines and sparkling ornaments as Ax, seated to his left, provided a strong rhythmic and harmonic bass line, venturing some melodies as well.
In the second half, Cantus offered eight Dvořák songs, the first five a cappella, the others with Ax and Melemed. ‘The Song of a Czech’ became a sort of anthem in the struggle for Czech nationhood, and the concluding number is based on the Largo from the ‘New World’ Symphony. The Largo had been inspired by African-American music, and Dvořák in turn inspired Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American composer whose settings of two negro spirituals, ‘Deep River’ and ‘Ezekiel Saw de Wheel’ were given touching performances by Cantus.
The concert came to a delightful end with three selections from Dvořák’s Opus 43 Bouquet of Slavonic Folk Songs, combining expressions of human emotions with references to nature. In the first two, ‘Grief’ and ‘Strange Water’, the pianists for the most part focused on supporting the vocalists’ melodic lines with embellishments, harmony and counterpoint, but in the final song, ‘The Girl in the Grove’, Ax and Melemed led off with the melody and continued as full partners in telling the song’s sad tale.
Regrettably, my Tanglewood stay will end before the final recital, Koussevitzky Shed on August 12, Ax joined by Pamela Frank, Leonidas Kavakos, Antoine Tamestit, and Yo-Yo Ma.
Friday, July 8, Koussevitzky Music Shed, BSO Opening Concert
To begin, Andris Nelsons led a sensitive rendition of Opening Prayer, composed by Leonard Bernstein for the 1986 first-night of the renovated Carnegie Hall. After fine solos on trumpet, oboe, harp and bassoon, and a sweetly lyrical melody on the strings, baritone Jack Canfield richly intoned – in Hebrew – the threefold priestly benediction from Numbers 6:24-26, punctuated by interjections from the harp. The performance ended gloriously with Canfield holding the high final note, on the word “Shalom” (Peace), for what seemed an eternity as the trumpet softly recalled the fanfare that had begun the work.
Then a change, http://www.colinscolumn.com/pianist-yuja-wang-replaces-jean-yves-thibaudet-for-opening-night-at-tanglewood/, allowing Yuja Wang a bravura performance, showing off her brilliant technique. She attacked the keyboard with plenty of power, yet her agile fingers often moved so rapidly that they literally became a blur. Nelsons and the BSO launched the Concerto with a forceful declaration of the pervasive principal motif and contributed strong tuttis throughout. Although at times Wang rushed through scales and runs, she struck a more contemplative mood in the Quasi adagio, left-hand arpeggios subtly balanced beneath the exquisite melody. The Allegretto vivace, heralded by a triangle, was delightfully playful, and the Finale’s variations on a jaunty march tune gave Wang ample opportunities: trading fanfares with the brass, playing sparkling figures accompanied by pizzicatos, and juxtaposing dazzling pyrotechnics with the orchestra’s melodic line. Wang’s encore was spectacular: Vladimir Horowitz’s Variations on a Theme from Carmen.
Following intermission, Nelsons led a powerful account of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The opening bassoon solo was gorgeous, the winds all excelled in the ensuing passages, and Nelsons ably directed the wildly irregular rhythms. The beauty of the sounds led me to wonder whether I had heard this work so many times that it no longer had the ability to shock. That thought was short-lived, however, as Nelsons brought the music back to a raw, cutting edge, and J. William Hudgins was particularly brilliant in generating an incredible variety of timbres from a bass drum, providing critical driving force to propel the music, jolting it out of complacency time and time again. Other noteworthy contributions included heartrending throbbing from the second violins and violas, exclamations from bass and E-flat clarinets, and outbursts from the brass. Nelsons’s carefully managed chaos was at its most effective toward the finish, depicting the sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death.
Saturday, July 9, Shed
The BSO’s second concert comprised American music, mostly from the 1930s and 1940s. But first came a new work, Motherboxx Connection, by Carlos Simon, originally written as the first movement of a larger work. Simon’s eclectic compositions, some of which have been commissioned and performed by the BSO, reflect influences from pop and gospel, as well as classical music. Motherboxx is a sentient, all-intelligent computer that is particularly attuned to Black experience and culture. The music is generally fast-moving, with brass and percussion instruments prominent from the outset. There was driving energy and potent chords from the strings, chattering by the winds, and powerful brass fanfares.
Soprano Nicole Cabell was the soloist in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, composed in 1947. This classic work captures, from the perspective of a young child, the slow pace of summer life in the pre-World War I American South. Cabell’s singing was lovely, but the orchestral sound, although itself quite beautiful, tended to overbalance the vocal line, making it difficult at times to discern James Agee’s words. (Fortunately, the text was provided in the printed program, but supertitles would have been welcome.)
Duke Ellington’s New World A-Coming followed the intermission, with Aaron Diehl, a composer-pianist with extensive experience in the worlds of both classical music and jazz, proving an ideal soloist. This is one of several long-form works that Ellington composed for a series of Carnegie Hall concerts and is intended to reflect everyday life in Harlem in the 1940s. The concert version performed here is an arrangement by Maurice Peress. The piano was augmented by jazz drummer Aaron Kimmel and bassist David Wong. Diehl introduced each of the melodic themes, developing them with complex harmonies and flashy scales and runs. Orchestral accompaniments and interludes were often reminiscent of the ‘Big Band’ era in which Ellington played a monumental role. Diehl and his trio partners joined in a lengthy encore: John Lewis’s Milano. The concert ended with the BSO giving George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, complete with authentically tuned Parisian taxi horns!
Sunday, July 10
Today was a doubleheader. The BSO’s matinee (Shed) began and ended with Rachmaninov: the lushly melodic Vocalise and his Third Symphony. In between came the American premiere of Helen Grime’s Trumpet Concerto, night-sky-blue, with HåkanHardenberger, a regular visitor to Tanglewood, the brilliant soloist. Grime also has long-standing ties to Tanglewood, having been a Composition Fellow in 2008. In pre-performance remarks she revealed that the Concerto’s pervasive nocturnal darkness (and its title as well) were inspired by having experienced at night the White Garden at Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle in Kent.
The trumpet begins muted but plays unmuted for much of the piece. Grime gives it more and more intricate versions of the initial motif, while driving the instrument into increasingly higher registers, all dashed off by Hardenberger with aplomb. The orchestration is spectacularly colorful, with the trumpet at times engaged in a dialogue with the orchestra. A particularly distinctive and interesting feature is having a pair of orchestral trumpets interact repeatedly with Hardenberger, joining in or commenting on its ideas, and sometimes even taking over and completing a phrase left unfinished by the soloist. The pace of the music quickens as the rapidly chattering trumpet is accompanied by ever faster figures in the strings, flute glissandos and loud thumping from the basses, but the cacophony stops abruptly, yielding to soft trombone and gentle strings, with the trumpet muted again. After the performance, I had a chance to ask the composer whether, as I suspected, she had composed the Concerto during Lockdown. No, she replied, that was when she was having a new baby and was busy home-schooling her older child. So much for my unfounded speculations!
After intermission, Nelsons and the BSO made a strong case for giving greater exposure to the seldom performed, but quite beautiful, Rachmaninov Third Symphony in A-minor (Opus 44). A thematic motto pervades the first two of the Symphony’s three movements and is related to the ‘Dies irae’ theme that increasingly dominates the Finale. Nelsons and the BSO brought out the sadness and joy evoked by Rachmaninov’s melodies as well as the propulsive energy of rhythmic passages.
Sunday evening’s concert was in Studio E, located in the Linde Center, the educational heart of the Tanglewood campus. Each summer, one-hundred-and-fifty young musicians are selected to participate as TMC Fellows in an intensive program of advanced study, instructed and mentored by a distinguished faculty of visiting artists and composers and members of the BSO. Most Fellows play instruments; however, the ranks of TMC Fellows also include singers, pianists, conductors, composers and librarians. This concert spotlighted six Vocal Fellows, with two great singer-educators, Dawn Upshaw and Stephanie Blythe – to observe and encourage their young charges.
Although all the singers and their accompanists gave fine performances, I was particularly impressed by tenor Edmond Rodriguez’s elegance of phrasing and controlled dynamics in five songs by Amy Beach, and violinist Sage Park and pianist Bethany Pietroniro were his excellent accompanists; soprano Emily Helenbrook and pianist Corey Silberstein perfectly captured the simple beauty of George Crumb’s Three Early Songs; the final set, comprised of songs by Charles Koechlin, was deliciously sung by soprano Elizabeth Polese, with You Zhao at the piano. Polese’s fluent French and her flair for ‘selling’ these mostly humorous songs made this a perfect ending for an evening of terrific singing.
Monday, July 11
In this TMC Orchestra concert (Shed), Fellows performed four well-known pieces. Two were ably led by conducting Fellows, and the other two were works by Richard Strauss with Andris Nelsons. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was beautifully led by Rita Castro Blanco, who has conducted several orchestras in her native Portugal and served for three years as principal conductor of the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra. She showed fine technique and kept the orchestra in excellent balance. The playing was outstanding, with oboe solos by Alexander Mayer especially noteworthy. Next was Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung in which Nelsons drew superb playing to depict the dying hours of a man who has led a fruitful life, striving to achieve an artistic ideal. There were fine solos by Elias D. Medina on oboe and Dominique Kim on flute, and the brass was terrific.
After intermission, Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony was led with assured poise by Nicolò Foron, principal assistant conductor of Ensemble Intercontemporain and winner of the 2021 International Conducting Competition Bucharest. The orchestra responded marvelously. The concert concluded with an exciting reading of ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Strauss’s opera, Salome, with Nelsons again showing off the talents of the Fellows.
Tuesday & Wednesday, July 5 & 6
With no concerts scheduled at Tanglewood, I took the opportunity to enjoy other cultural attractions in the Massachusetts Berkshires – a visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown for an exhibit of Rodin sculptures, and a dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket.
Friday, July 15
After a week of more-serious fare, I was delighted to attend a screening of George Lucas’s film, The Empire Strikes Back, with an indefatigable Keith Lockhart with the Boston Pops Orchestra, comprised mostly of members of the BSO, played the score composed by John Williams – Lockhart’s predecessor as principal conductor of the Pops. Hearing the score performed live made the film much more exciting, especially in its militaristic scenes, featuring terrific playing by the brass and percussion. Also noteworthy were outstanding horn solos by Richard Sebring, mostly associated with Yoda. An audience of several-thousand nearly filled the seats in the Shed and sprawled across the vast lawns around it, viewing the film on screens. Their collective laughter, groans and cheers added greatly to the festivity of the occasion. (They also created huge traffic jams, both before and after the performance!)
Saturday, July 16
Another doubleheader day. First up was a rehearsal of Fazil Say’s appealing Phoenix (Anka Kusu), for piano four-hands and orchestra that would receive its American premiere the next day (when I had left). Nelsons initially focused on rhythmic patterns, explaining how he will count and conduct particular passages, and then had the BSO and soloists Lucas and Arthur Jussen play the Scherzo. Only then did he run through the entire piece. An interesting feature of the work was having one (and at one point both) of the soloists reach into the piano to mute some of the strings, producing odd sounds that lack the normal range of overtones. (Shades of John Cage and his prepared piano!)
Joining the BSO for Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem were soprano Ying Fang, bass-baritone Shenyang and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The choristers were very well prepared (by James Burton), so, Nelsons was able to run straight through the work, stopping only once to repeat a short passage midway through and pausing briefly for a comment to the musicians. Although a rehearsal, the soloists sang with full voice, or nearly so, and the glorious result was quite close to a concert performance.
On this final day at Tanglewood, I took advantage of a sunny afternoon to take a walk to enjoy the beauty of the extensive grounds.
This summer’s visit to Tanglewood has given me a still greater appreciation of how the future of music is shaped by succeeding generations of musicians. I had the pleasure of interacting with visiting artists and educators, BSO members, staff, commentators and, most significantly, young musicians at the beginning of their professional careers – all collaborating with one another.