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Through The American Prism: BSO, Hampson, Shaham at Tanglewood


David Robertson conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra through a program of Harris, Thomson, Barber, and Bernstein at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed on Sunday afternoon, July 26. The selected pieces, all mid-20th-century works of American composers, offered a variety of masterful works that, for the most part, blur the all-too-commonly drawn lines between the progressive-atonal camp and the conservative-Americana camp. While the composers on the program tend to be associated with the latter, the program was anything but sedate and seemed to grow more and more intriguing throughout the concert. Celebrated baritone Thomas Hampson graced the audience through selections of songs by Virgil Thomson and Samuel Barber, and Bernstein’s Symphony #2 “The Age of Anxiety” featured pianist Orli Shaham.

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Pianist Orli Shaham with conductor David Robertson and the BSO on Sunday afternoon (Hilary Scott)

Roy Harris’s Symphony #3 opened the concert with the slow unfolding of chorale-like textures in the low strings. (The piece, premiered by the Boston Symphony 70 years ago under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky himself, has not been performed by the orchestra since the mid-1970s, though it has been quite popular in programming elsewhere. So the BSO revisiting it was a brave undertaking.) The piece, with a very rigid block-structure, accomplishes magnificently the straightforward musical aims of each localized section. The Pastoral, one of the most convincing sections, was visited by the soft downpour of rain from beyond the outer edges of the amphitheater, making the music all the more emotive. With the unanimity of musical material in each section, Harris’s Symphony #3 leaves little to be questioned until its abruptly rigid and unsettling ending, which seemed to propel the listener into the following pieces with a sense of apprehension.

The Five Songs from William Blake by Virgil Thomson featured the wildly successful baritone Thomas Hampson. His expressive and poignant performance gave a wealth of life to a set of pieces that can otherwise seem rather square, and the contrast between the each of the songs creates enough momentum and interest to engage even the most distrait listeners. The constant focus is on the song, and all the music seems to be dictated by the happenings of the voice. So although the essence of Thomson’s songs features a fairly risk-less relationship between the orchestra and singer, Hampson took command of his role with radiance, creating dimension to these steeples of neoclassicist Americana.

Anyone looking for a more intriguing and complex dialogue between Thomas Hampson and the BSO was without doubt appeased by the performances of Samuel Barber’s songs with orchestra: Sure on this shining night, Nocturne, and I hear an army charging upon the land. Unlike the Thomson, these songs were not originally conceived to be grouped together into a single performance, and the trajectory of the first two songs into the third seemed a bit skewed. Nonetheless, each performance was a fantastic realization of some of the greatest pieces for orchestra and voice of the 20th century. Sure on this shining night, in particular supplied a great depth in sensitivity to the complex and intricate connections between the text, the musical development, and the orchestration. I hear an army flowed over with energy, and was the powerful and dark explosion that was needed to bid farewell to Hampson.

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Thomas Hampson performs with guest conductor David Robertson and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon. (Hilary Scott)

Like Harris’s Symphony #3, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony #2, “The Age of Anxiety,” received its premiere by the BSO under Koussevitzky decades ago. While the piece was conceived and formed around the poem by W.H. Auden that narrates the events of an evening of four acquaintances in a New York bar, Symphony #2 established a musical narrative of its own – a non-programmatic musical narrative that is so alluring and involved that an attempt to tie the musical events to the poetic narrative would not only be futile, but would thwart the ability of an gratifying listening experience. Thankfully, the folks at the BSO were kind enough to exclude the original poem from the program notes. The piece features a riveting dialogue between the piano and orchestra. Pianist Orli Shaham was as magnificent as her reputation suggests. The emotional depth of her performance was so entrancing that one can often overlook how wickedly difficult the solo piano part is. There seemed to be a supernatural link between Shaham and conductor David Robertson; the conversation between orchestra and pianist seemed to flow like a river, without the slightest disturbance.

The perks of having musical variety in a concert program are often hindered when an orchestra decides to focus on a limited timeframe and stylistic orientation. Though in this case, the program seemed to reveal to us, or at least remind us that the orchestral repertoire of mid-20th-century America is far more eclectic than we often recollect, and is as diverse as it is euphonious.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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