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, for music-lovers to experience a wide range of musical activities, and also to enjoy the beautiful surroundings that have made this such a favorite place.
The concerts included Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Wagner’s Das Rheingold, both conducted by Andris Nelsons, with both reviewed separately, links below
July 7 – ‘Resurrection’ Symphony
A rainy afternoon gave way to clear skies in time for the symphonic version of Sondheim on Sondheim, the man himself present. In the Koussevitzky Music Shed Keith Lockhart led the Boston Pops (its members drawn almost entirely from the BSO) in new arrangements for orchestra that add a wonderful dimension to the 2010 Broadway production. The aptly named show is narrated on video by Sondheim, who introduces selections from his musicals, shares photos, recollections and insights from his personal and professional life, laced with humor – and some surprising revelations.
Vocalists included Phillip Boykin, Carmen Cusack, Gabriel Ebert and Ruthie Ann Miles, as well as Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows. Each summer one-hundred-and-fifty young musicians are selected to participate as TMC Fellows in an intensive program of advanced study.
Highlights of Sondheim included the opening number of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a patter song from Merrily We Roll Along, brilliantly performed by Ebert, Boykin’s powerful ‘Epiphany’ from Sweeney Todd; two songs from Follies beautifully sung by Cusack, ‘Being Alive’ from Company (Daniel McGrew) and Katherine Beck’s touching rendition of ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music. We the audience left with broad smiles under the light of a full moon!
Today was a doubleheader. The BSO’s matinee (Koussevitzky) began with Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G (K216), in a superb rendition by sixteen-year-old Daniel Lozakovich. His self-assured manner belies his youth, and his phrasing was uncannily accurate and appropriate; he was truly making music. In the Adagio, under Nelsons’s careful management, Lozakovich and the accompanying strings combined to produce an achingly beautiful result. As an encore, Lozakovich gave an astounding account of Fritz Kreisler’s pyrotechnics-laden Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice, which is dedicated to Ysaÿe.
After intermission, Nelsons led an excellent account of Mahler 4. He kept the BSO in perfect balance. The absence of trombones and tuba in Mahler’s scoring contributed to the opening movement’s mood of levity, if with nightmarish aspects. In the second movement, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s solos on his higher-tuned instrument featured aggressive entrances and a rustic tone. The Adagio featured marvelous playing by the strings – violins passionate, cellos and violas sweetly melodic, and basses softly persistent. The huge outburst near the movement’s end began a transition toward the delightful atmosphere of the vocal Finale, in which Kristine Opolais gave a lovely account of ‘Das himmlische Leben’, a child’s description of imagined heavenly pleasures: merry song and dance, treats to eat and drink, and joyfully angelic music.
In the evening, in Ozawa Hall, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald featured Stephanie Blythe, Dawn Upshaw, six TMC Vocal Fellows and Three TMC Piano Fellows, accompanied by a jazz combo comprised of members of the Boston Pops, led by pianist/arranger Lee Musiker, whose arrangements reflect Fitzgerald’s contributions to the American Songbook.
Blythe’s numbers were spectacular, especially Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’. Upshaw gave a touching rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, and a more vociferous take on Cole Porter’s ‘Just One of Those Things’. The Vocal Fellows once again showed off their considerable talents, highlights including Paulina Swierczek in George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘By Strauss’; Harold Arlen’s ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’, sung by Dominik Belavy; and Elaine Daiber’s hilarious account of Rodgers & Hart’s ‘To Keep my Love Alive’.
Musiker was brilliant as bandleader and pianist, at times stepping aside in favor of one of the Piano Fellows – in the Gershwin medley the three took to the keyboard, changing positions repeatedly without breaking the flow of the music. Throughout the evening, Mike Monaghan was fabulous playing various wind instruments.
This TMC Orchestra concert (Ozawa Hall) was an opportunity for Fellows to perform challenging contemporary music with world-class artists – trumpeters Håkan Hardenberger and Thomas Rolfs, with Nelsons – and also gave two Conducting Fellows a chance to lead Symphonies: many members of US orchestras are TMC alumni.
Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony was led by Vinay Parameswaran, who will become assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in the coming season. He showed a good rhythmic sense but detail in the violins was often overshadowed. Strong points included fine playing by flute, piccolo and bassoon principals, but the performance should be regarded as a near-miss.
Nelsons took over for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2005 Trumpet Concerto (From the Wreckage), with Hardenberger brilliant. The single movement divides into three sections, with the soloist playing a different instrument in each. The atmosphere is darkest in the opening section, Hardenberger playing flugelhorn. Then, after rhythmic percussion leads the way into the middle section, he changed to a standard trumpet. In the final part, Hardenberger’s piccolo trumpet rose to great heights.
After intermission, BSO principal Rolfs joined Hardenberger in Turnage’s 1995 Dispelling the Fears. The trumpeters are in duet for most of the duration, often discordant but drifting into more consonant harmonies influenced by jazz and blues, but this piece does not generate as much interest as the previous one.
The concert concluded with Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements conducted by Nuno Coelho, who has had two years as assistant conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic. The TMC ensemble responded well to Coelho’s firm direction bringing out details of Stravinsky’s odd rhythms and diverse palate of colors.
“With a Smile in My Song” was the theme of this entertaining recital in Ozawa Hall. Six TMC Vocal Fellows each performed two songs with a comedic theme, with accompaniments from four Piano Fellows. TMC faculty members Stephanie Blythe and Alan Louis Smith also performed a brace of songs. They were interspersed with readings by the vocalists of witty poems, letters and monologues. The recital evoked plenty of laughs, but also demonstrated how difficult it is to do comedy. The singers generally demonstrated good timing and gestures, but often found it difficult to project rapid-paced lyrics with total clarity.
There were several standouts and the biggest hit of the evening was tenor Daniel McGrew’s rendition of Steven Mark Kohn’s setting of the folksong ‘The Farmer’s Curst Wife’, hilariously sung and acted, and his brilliant traversal of Jerome Kern’s ‘I Want to Sing in Opera’.
The evening concluded with Carl Sigman’s 1949 hit, ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think)’, with the Fellows singing the clever verses, the audience singing along in the choruses, and Blythe providing accompaniment on an ukulele.
In Ozawa Hall Daniil Trifonov’s recital embraced Schumann – Kinderszenen, Toccata, Kreisleriana – five Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues (from Opus 87) and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. Trifonov demonstrated extraordinary technique and a wide range of colors and dynamics. He was alive to the moods of Kinderszenen and the tour-de-force that is the Toccata, but despite continued excellence in Kreisleriana, it felt too long, perhaps because Trifonov had programmed just too much Schumann back-to-back.
In the second half, however, there was never a moment where interest lagged. Each of the Preludes and Fugues were spellbinding, and in Petrushka, it was hard to believe that the orchestral versions could be any more colorful. As an encore, Trifonov played the first nine of Federico Mompou’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (Prelude, Opus 28/7).
The Knights – “a collective of adventurous musicians, dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music” – was founded by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen. The group’s thirty-six members, all graduates, are adept in the classics and at the cutting edge. The first segment of the program, conducted by Eric, conflated Henry Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note with John Adams’s Common Tones in Simple Time: as the Purcell began, eight violinists stood in the aisles of Ozawa Hall for the sustained middle-C over which contrapuntal lines were woven. The players ascended the stage as the Purcell came toward its close and dissolved seamlessly, via tremolos, into the Adams. A quivering curtain of sound in high registers above pulsations from two pianos persists through most of the twenty minutes, with subtle melodic and harmonic variations occurring at a snail’s pace.
The highlight of the program was violinist Jennifer Koh’s brilliant account of Trouble, a concerto by Vijay Iyer, a jazz pianist whose first instrument was the violin. The challenging solo part is lyrical and at other times gritty and slashing. Iyer’s orchestration features a melancholic flute melody in the first of the work’s six movements, rhythmic contributions from percussion, and colorations from high (piccolo) to low (muted tuba).
The concert concluded with a spirited reading of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 (K550). Most of the musicians performed standing, with violinists positioned antiphonally, Colin Jacobsen as leader. Tempos in the outer movements were brisk, the Andante delicate and endearing, the Minuet broadly phrased and the Trio delightful.
In the Koussevitzky Shed Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony opened with Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin; its graceful melodies capture the spirit of French musical tradition and included superb oboe solos by John Ferrillo and wonderfully delicate string playing. Thomas Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin does take as its starting point works from Couperin, his Livres de pièces de clavecin. Adès scores his adaptations for a chamber orchestra. In the first Study, ‘Les Amusements’, extremely low timbres, including bass and alto flutes, predominate amid off-kilter rhythms and offsetting contributions from the dual string ensembles. In ‘Les Tours de passe-passe’ (Sleight of Hand), pizzicato notes set a rhythm that remains steady as woodwinds, trumpet and drums, and swirling strings, threaten to change the pace. And in the final Study, stretched-out notes and sometimes off-balance interplay between the string ensembles represent ‘L’Âme en peine’ (The Soul in Anguish). Adès has succeeded in creating a fascinating work that feels distinctly modern, yet firmly rooted in the baroque. This summer Adès will complete the first of a three-year relationship with the BSO, and he will direct Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music next year and in 2019.
Between the two Couperin-related works Nelsons drew fine playing in Haydn’s Symphony 83 (The Hen) and the concert concluded with Trifonov in Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21 (K467). Nelsons masterfully led the orchestral introduction and then was a perfect partner. The Andante’s lovely melody – popularized in Bo Widerberg’s 1967 film Elvira Madigan – was presented with elegance, and the rapid-paced Finale enjoyed delightful interplay. As an encore Trifonov offered the ‘Gavotte’ from Prokofiev’s Cinderella as transcribed by the composer.
July 15 – Das Rheingold
Sunday, July 16
My Tanglewood stay ended on a bright afternoon that showed off the beauty of the extensive grounds. Anne-Sophie Mutter joined Nelsons and the BSO for the world premiere of John Williams’s Markings, which explores the entire range of the violin, including a melodic line that spans four octaves, and various alternations: rising and falling arpeggios and scales; accelerating and decelerating tempos; and contrasting meters. Mutter’s Stradivarius sang out in dreamy lyrical passages, and she met the technical challenges set by Williams, including an extensive cadenza. The ensemble of strings and harp begins the piece softly, and later a fine harp solo over pulsating strings stood out. With a gorgeous melody, Markings comes to a gentle conclusion.
Mutter then threw herself with vigor and skill into Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, adopting rapid tempos in the outer movements with Nelsons and the BSO keeping pace. The central ‘Canzonetta’ could not have contrasted more, Mutter’s playing being soft and subdued and supported by lovely solos on flute and clarinet. As an encore was John Williams’s ‘theme’ from Schindler’s List.
The concert concluded with Nelsons’s exciting reading of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, played brilliantly. The enormous sound in the Symphony’s final passages was a wonderful way to end my visit to Tanglewood, which has given me a greater appreciation of how the future of music is shaped by succeeding generations of musicians.
I had the pleasure of interacting with artists, BSO members and staff, commentators and, most significantly, students and those musicians at the beginning of professional careers – all collaborating with one another under the mentorship of BSO members and visiting faculty.