“Quintessential” sums up the 2009 Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert performed in Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed Sunday afternoon, August 16th. Quintessential Romantic repertoire in the form of an all-Brahms program; quintessential conducting from the venerable Kurt Masur; a quintessential performance by members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra along with guest piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson; and the quintessential Tanglewood experience featuring high heat and humidity, bucolic surroundings, and the occasional cicada accompaniment. [Only thing missing was a rip-snorter of a thunderstorm!] The Shed was filled to capacity; the lawn dotted with parasols of myriad patterns and colors. What more could one ask for?
The concert featured a pair of twos: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, followed by his Symphony No. 2. Both are mature works, written after Brahms had established his reputation as one of the preeminent Romantic composers and during a period in which he was apparently hard at work on his characteristic avoirdupois. Speaking of preeminent, conductor Kurt Masur, well into his ninth decade, nimbly led the youthful and hyper-talented TMC Orchestra; Garrick Ohlsson was very Garrick Ohlsson. All aspects of the concerto were beautifully rendered, from the buttery tones of the solo horn to the rich sounds of the strings. Tasted like smooth, creamy chocolate. Mr. Ohlsson dug into the piano passages in an expressively authoritative manner; the preternaturally shiny Steinway growled and purred in equal measure. Though some of the piano flourishes featured a smattering of notes not in the original score, the overall effect was highly pleasing to both ear and mind. [Perhaps he would have been better served to ditch the dapper but no doubt stifling white tux jacket.] Conductor, orchestra, and soloist certainly earned the raucous standing ovation that immediately followed the final triumphant chord.
At first blush, Brahms’ second symphony is all sunshine and blue skies. There is the occasional cloud shadow, however, and it is this deeper complexity that is vintage Brahms. Given its naturalistic overtones, this piece was an extremely appropriate choice for the venue. At various points during the performance, found myself swooping over craggy mountains, peering into the large eyes of small, worried animals, and being tossed about on windswept seas. Quite the ride. Herr Masur’s conducting style was bouncy and efficient, featuring precise gestures and sweepingly concise movements. This was reflected in the unusually coherent sound of the orchestra. You know a group is good when it seems to live and breathe as a single complex organism. The yin and yang of experienced conductor and youthful but talented musicians is a potent combination. Stellar rendition garnered a second enthusiastic standing-O.
Lenny and Johannes no doubt would have reveled in this performance. [And, who knows, perhaps they did.] All together, now [sung to “Hooray for Hollywood”]: Hooray for TAN-gle-wooood! . . . .