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Mahler and the Transition to 20th Century Music at Tanglewood


With three concerts that focused on the vivid linkages between late romantic and modern classical composition, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival embraced its official opening weekend. On the Friday, July 9, it offered a “Prelude Concert” by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Ozawa Hall, immediately prior to the evening’s main event, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor in the Shed. Under John Oliver’s baton and with special guest mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, the chorus and conductor celebrated their 40th anniversary together with five delicious, harmonically complex a cappella works: Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans, Poulenc’s Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise, Françaix’s Trois Poemes de Paul Valery, Ravel’s Trois Chansons, and Poulenc’s cantata, La Figure Humaine. They were supported in the latter by a fine contrabassist, Thomas Van Dyck. Then, substituting for James Levine, who was recovering from back surgery and is not expected to return to the podium until after the summer, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the BSO in its first concert of the season, with soloists Blythe and Layla Claire featured in the Mahler. A thoughtfully-conceived Monday concert propelled the perspective forward with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra offering Anton Webern’s transcription of the “Ricercare” from J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering, conducted by Christian Macelaru; Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D. 485, conducted by Keitaro Harada; and Strauss’s orchestral suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Opus 60, conducted by Alexander Prior.

Prelude Concert with Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Technical challenges affected both Friday concerts, but the musicians rose to the occasion and overcame them. On the Ozawa stage, the stationing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus across the fixed, broadly concave risers limited the singers’ abilities to hear one another, producing some awkward excursions from intonation and balance, particularly in the inner voices. Had they been singing in a tighter concave formation, this would probably have been avoided. Notwithstanding, the Debussy and Ravel suites glowed with emotion and excitement, indeed elevated to a higher, even transcendent, plane, when, in the second movements of each work, Stephanie Blythe contributed her immense, glowing, rich, subtly-modulated, and exquisitely articulated voice to the proceedings. (Blythe worked similar magic in the title role of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein by Jacques Offenbach at Opera Boston in May, bringing lesser singers to peak performance, even as she risked upstaging them.)

The Poulenc World War II cantata, La Figure Humaine, a strikingly original and enduring choral work that intones and proclaims the text of Liberté by Paul Eluard, ended the vocal program with power and passion. Dropped by the planeload over Nazi-occupied France by the Royal Air Force, this famous poem is a mounting litany of metaphors of suffering and hope that closes emphatically with a strong and dangerous declamation of the cherished word, Liberty, itself. Beneath the bustle and excitement of Poulenc’s musical setting, the chorus dug heartily into the dense chromaticisms down to the last shouting major chord. Pity the soprano who took a daring shot at the high octave and missed, but give her an A for courage and John Oliver and the chorus a richly-deserved ovation. Never has such an ensemble, to paraphrase Churchill, served so many, for so long, for so little compensation, excepting travel expenses and the reward of filling our ears with inspired song.

Mahler with Michael Tilson Thomas

Once seated in the Shed, as the large crowd settled into silence after greeting Michael Tilson Thomas warmly, another challenge presented itself. For members of the audience not inured to the hum of the African vuvuzela during the World Cup soccer playoffs in the previous weeks, a continuous hum emitted from the large, high speaker banks to the right and left of the stage. From Row J of Section 6 in the center of the hall, it was really noisome and lasted, amazingly, through the entire first movement before suddenly turning off mid-way through the second. After the first movement ended, there was brief applause. When the crowd quieted down, Thomas looked first to his left and then to his right, searching, it appeared, for someone to shut the hum off. Shrugging his shoulders and appearing perplexed, he plowed ahead.

Bad move. Had he been aware of the event, he might have taken the cue from Mahler himself. On first arriving in the rehearsal hall of the New York Symphony, the renowned conductor heard the sounds of other musicians’ practicing wafting through the building. Only when the others stopped, he declared, would the rehearsal start. Such confidence and leadership would have been welcome here. One was left to wonder who was in charge of the hall.

James Levine was surely missed at the first summer concert of his orchestra. During the stunning first movement of the Mahler Symphony No. 2, the closing, heroic arc of his first symphony is extended. Mahler intended it this way. Levine, who brought the First so powerfully to its spectacular close in a moving performance in the Shed in 2008, would have made this obvious. Those horn cries, that charging hero theme, those sparkling woodwinds, the rumbles and brass outbursts that portend big trouble ahead, were tempered by background noise and by the distressing realization that no one in a position to rescue the players and audience appeared to be listening, and by the initial hesitancy of the evening’s conductor.

But the principals and sections of the Orchestra played their hearts out and redeemed the evening. They know this work intimately, and from the outset, individual players and sections brought out its exquisite shadings and dramatic dynamics without requiring specific cues. Unlike Levine, who intensely engages with the musicians and reciprocates special contributions with his eyes and hands from a seated position on a high armchair, Thomas focuses less on the musicians than on the big picture, evincing a personal engagement with the emotional unfolding with gestures reminiscent of great conductors of the past, rising on his toes, heaving side to side, seizing violently to moments of crisis (Leonard Bernstein) and sweeping the baton in a right-to-left horizontal line in the third beat of every measure of particular flowing passages (Charles Munch). His cues telegraphed the general direction of the responses he sought, even as he paid most attention to superstructure of the symphony, most of which he conducted from memory. The end result was gratifying indeed. For all its sturm und drang and churning complexities, the symphony drew one in, yielded clearly to intuitive understanding, and reached its final summoning apotheosis in what in retrospect seemed but a flash of time.

High points in the first movement included Robert Sheena’s and Toby Oft’s legato English horn and trombone lines that soared over the martial underpinning, reminding the listener of the hero’s struggles in the First symphony, the perfectly articulated descending lines of Mike Roylance’s powerful but nuanced tuba, Thomas Rolf’s sadly whimsical major sixths, giving unusual reflective substance to the simple bugle call, and the delicious portamentos and glissandi in the violins and cellos that signaled the shtetl roots of the composer, conductor, and some of the players, all of whom dug into them with relish.

Superb ensemble work was evident in the brass, with Rolfs and Thomas Siders, the newly appointed assistant principal trumpet, blending with exquisite clarity and delicacy in proclamations early in the movement, legato lines in its center, and the sustained pianissimi in the final 16 measures, before the harmony suddenly mutates from C major to C minor in the space of four beats, a stunning excursion from pianississimo to fortissimo and back, by oboists John Ferrillo and Keisuke Wakao, declaiming authoritatively the major and minor thirds before the movement comes crashes a close in a furious chromatic fortissimo descent to a unison C, followed by a piano, and then a pianissimo C in just the woodwinds over pizzicato strings.

Midway through the second movement, the continuous hum from the high speakers finally stopped. Relief! Instantly, the harp shone with real sparkle and the pizzicato contrabasses, one of the iconic sounds of the Tanglewood Shed, at last resonated across their distinctive spectrum. This blessed event occurred shortly before the introduction of Mahler’s familiar Tchaikovskian theme that features schmaltzy appoggiaturas. After this brief interval of easy satisfaction and emotional tranquility, the solo harp, Jessica Zhou, playing a splendidly controlled ascending arpeggio, diminishing from piano to pianississimo, brought the movement to a gentle ending, again with two soft pizzicatos in the strings.

Finally, silence reigned (although the audience applauded again) and the dreaded vuvuzela did not reappear.

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe and soprano Layla Claire entered, wearing contrasting gowns, the one a lovely olive green with matching woven shawl, the other with a creamy top and sequined black skirt. Then, shortly after the beginning of the movement, astoundingly liquid solo, duo, and trio clarinet work by William Hudgins, Michael Wayne, and Thomas Martin provoked new respect both for Mahler’s masterful use of the whole section as an expressive voice and for the superb teamwork among these virtuosi. The trumpet section, in gently voiced, beautifully balanced legato lines reciprocated this shortly afterward over rapid arpeggios by both harps. The conductor, reaching for dramatic gesture to the limits of his arms and feet, seemed not to notice these sublime contributions, however.

The magnificent final movement, takes its vocal text from a long poem from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) works, and expresses a yearning for relief from life’s struggles and death’s rigors, beginning, in the translation that accompanies the orchestral score in the 1987 Dover Press republication of the 1897 Josef Weinberger edition, with text from the Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock poems Urlicht (Primal Light) and Aufferstehung (Resurrection). Here are excerpts:

O little red rose!

Man lies in greatest need!

Man lies in greatest pain!

How much rather would I be in Heaven!


To bloom again are you sown.

The lord of the harvest goes

And gathers sheaves,

Us, who died.

Then Mahler’s own words follow.  Here is the final passage:

O Sorrow, all-penetrating!

I have been wrested away from you!

O Death, all-conquering!

Now you are conquered!

With wings that I won

In the passionate strivings of love

I shall mount

To that light to which no sight has penetrated!

I shall die, so as to live!

Arise again, yes, you will arise from the dead,

My heart, in an instant!

What you have conquered

Will bear you to God!

(Note: The Dover edition translation is much more satisfying than the one offered in the program, the latter positing the stilted – if politically correct — “Mankind” in place of “Man,” and “In love’s ardent struggle” for Mahler’s own phrase, “In the passionate strivings of love.”)

The minor choral hymn that projects these aspirations was preceded by a repeating phrase in alternate measures of 3/4 and 4/4 meter, sung by Stephanie Blythe with moving understatement and subtle dynamics. Her gorgeous, velvety, enormous sound was marshaled perfectly to the text and to the shifting tonalities of Bb-minor to Bb-major tonalities. This reviewer wrote in his notes at that moment: “The sun has come out.”

And then, within a second, Tanglewood Son et Lumière! As if by magic, the lights in the entire shed rose to at least half-strength and stayed that way until the end of the performance. The skeptic in one might recall the devilish moment three seasons before, when, during Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony under Levine’s direction, the lawn sprinklers went on, drenching hundreds. The resulting stir required a long pause before the shed that housed the faucets was identified and the sprinklers were turned off. (Teenaged pranksters were alleged to have been responsible for this incident.) No further gremlins appeared on this particular evening, nor were artistic culprits publicly identified. (We await with anxious anticipation a performance of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

To clashing minor chords after the appearance of the sun, two French horn players rushed off the stage. The left stage door opened, and after a pause, a series of horn calls emanated, echoed across the stage by oboe, trumpet, horn, and harp. The violins fluttered with seeming worry, and an ominous solo trombone sounded over the rumble of the tympani. A minor-key folk-melody in the flute, clarinet, and oboe appeared over pizzicato strings, and superb solo trombone and trumpet calls reprised the off-stage horn calls.

Here, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus began the slow hymn a cappella, as quietly as possible, on the familiar liturgical cadence of dominant, subdominant, and dominant chords. The blend was exquisite, and the subsequent underpinning of contrabass gave the listener a jolt of remembrance of the “Liberté” in the prelude concert that utilized this most apposite orchestration device. The repeated phrases of the simple, diatonic melody (so different from the 20th-century modernisms of the Poulenc cantata) exerted a powerful sensory and emotional effect, and the simple chromatic modulations, by the half step, only increased the intensity. Just when one thought that choral singing doesn’t get better than this, a restatement of the melody transposed down was joined by the contrabasses and Layla Claire, whose sweet, unprepossessing, but insufficiently strong voice could not quite project the softer passages to the center of the hall. Yet this gave Mahler’s expression of human frailty and transitory existence a striking humanity and verisimilitude. One did not have to hear every one of Claire’s words to sympathize with her fate and to recognize our own. One lives for such moments of transcendent music-making, where performers and audience are brought to a such an exalted plane of human existence and when human experience is ennobled by music.

Michael Tilson Thomas was much less flamboyant here, sedate, in keeping with the mood. In the end, there was need neither for acrobatics or histrionics. Blythe, her huge voice resolving perfectly intoned appoggiaturas, pleading, “Oh believe,” the male choristers intoning “I shall fly upwards,” and the splendid orchestra, fully capable of elevating the spirit to an assurance of enduring life.

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra with Conducting Fellows

Conducted and prepared superbly by Christian Macelaru, Anton Webern’s orchestral adaptation of the “Ricerare” movement of Bach’s Musical Offering blazed with interest. The melodic and contrapuntal lines were distributed across a variety of instruments, not one line to each instrument, but pieces of lines, single notes, short arcs, and rows (rows, ye modernists!), that together made perfect sense, even if you hadn’t heard this kind of Bach before. The counterpoint, sometimes straightforward, often dense, gleamed with kaleidoscopic color, and layers on layers of thin and thick texture waved and contracted and unfurled again. Here was the master in his most confident, magisterial authority, seen through the lens of a Schoenberg disciple, who was in turn a Mahler devotee, preoccupied with the beauty and distinctiveness of individual musical tones and lines. One was reminded of James Levine’s stunning presentation of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder four Tanglewood seasons ago, with its visionary perspectives, both forward and backward, glorious palette of orchestral colors, and concentration on tonal beauty. The forces here were tiny by comparison, but the vision was comparable. One could witness both the profundity of Bach’s compositional achievement and anticipate Webern’s smaller but strikingly original modernism.

The conductor drew from each soloist splendid expressions of their small and large commitments. Meaning was made of every note. Most distinguished were the warm English horn of Sarah Lewis, the limpid violin and sweetly expressive viola of Alicia Enstrom and Amy Mason, and the shimmering trumpet of Eli Maurer. The whole orchestra, however, functioned as a living, breathing organism.

Keitaro Harada’s conducting was so engaged with each player in the Schubert Symphony No. 5 in B-flat that a quality of mutual delight in performing together pervaded this sunny, familiar work. Composed when Schubert was only 19, it resonates with respect to Haydn and Mozart and anticipates in a striking way Mahler’s Schubertian melodic sensibility. Harada listens intently, leads with clarity and subtlety, and emits a thoughtful and appreciative musicality. The first movement was radiant, with clear lines and perfectly balanced contrapuntal voices.

Harada put down the baton for the 6/8 opening of the second movement, a graceful kind of barcarolle. Flutist Jessica Anastasio’s sublimely supple and organic account of the graceful melody blended beautifully with the other woodwinds. Harada’s conducting hands were as James Levine’s at his best: inviting, describing, and summoning with precision the emotions that underpinned the phrases. Most especially, in the singing final section, he drew from the orchestra a splendid choral quality, leading up to the brilliant, descending Eb arpeggio by horn soloist Meghan Guegold that brought the movement to a convincing and satisfying conclusion.

High horns in thirds and many tips of the hat to Mozart distinguished the third movement of the Schubert, with Harada’s baton deftly indicating the andante 3/4 time and the many dynamic nuances. There were beautifully controlled piano and pianissimo ensemble sections here, the players instantly and eagerly responding to Harada’s indications.

Still more dramatic distributions of dynamics characterized the fourth movement of Schubert in quick 4/4 time, with sweet melodies tossed around and beautiful section work in the 12/8 portion. The reviewer’s notes include the excited phrase “Sounds like a big string quartet!” Such was the plasticity and nuanced expression of this performance! At its end, the players applauded Harada enthusiastically.

With Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme orchestral suite, the salvaged music from the unsuccessful Strauss/Hofmannsthal five-act opera that followed Der Rosenkavalier, there was yet another parallelism with Friday’s concert. Just as the Mahler Second sustains the music and drama of the First, so does this programmatic confection carry forward the wit and whimsy of its predecessor. There is much happy parody of the formalities of high and low society, paeans and lampoons of costume and convention, a predestined prig who meets his come-uppance, and some, but nearly as much, delicious polytonality. Here, however, it’s all in miniature, and all in the orchestra. But the charm is there.

The conductor, Alexander Prior, at 18 years of age, has already received awards in the Mahler Conducting Competition, the Leeds Conducting Competition, and the International Prokofiev Composition Competition; and he has conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Eugene Onegin, Dido and Aeneas, and La Traviata in Russia. The light lifting of this work was addressed with brio and humor, and the orchestra and crowd loved him.

In the Overture, a vivace movement features a sub-orchestra — first just a piano quintet, then with the addition of a contrabass, and gradually the whole shebang, bursting through delightful modulations and rapid changes of mood. The clear, bright trumpet and strong, flexible bass trombone of Toby Penk and Nozomi Kasano Flatt, respectively, sang sweetly and strongly, and the virtuoso runs and arpeggios of pianist Makiko Hirata swept the ensemble along.

A solo in 6/8 meter by the oboe, Kristina Goettler, gave a dulcet, vocalistic quality to the opening melody of the second section of the overture, and the clarinet of Georgiy Borisov sustained its development along with an impressively nuanced descant by the confident horn player, Matthew Bronstein.

The “Minuet” section that followed featured two flutes and harmonic resonances direct from the second act of Der Rosenkavalier, with repeated dominant-tonic cadences in different keys. The “Fencing Master” movement was charming, with pleasing and pompous pokings and pretensions from the trumpet, piano, and horn.

The following movements, “Entrance and Dance of the Tailors,” “Minuet of Lully,” and “Courante,” comprised a cleverly embedded violin concerto, with zesty double-stops, fabulous filigrees, and shades of Sarasate for concert mistress Sarah Silver. Her sound is splendid but not large, and one had to listen carefully over the voluptuous orchestration to appreciate the full ambit of her music: technically brilliant with deep feeling, unerring intonation, keen dynamic sensibility, and a fine sense of humor.

Alexander Prior brought forth in the gracious “Entrance of Cleante” an unusual hymn-like string ensemble, with an eerie resonance to Baroque chamber instrumentation. A pianissimo passage, voiced by violins, cello, and contrabass was contrived by the use of portamento to echo like violas da gamba, giving way to a bouncing theme with changing meters featuring horn and trumpet. This was a small-orchestra tour de force in the space of five minutes.

“Dinner-Table Music and Dance of the Kitchen Boy” brought the show to a fulfilling close. Prior’s conducting accurately and expressively characterized the stiff formalities, martial posturing, and churlish children, cooking up a mouth-watering array of savories: the splendid cello of Caleb van der Swaagh, soaring high on the fingerboard with nary an absent spice, delectable and fragrant flute/oboe duet playing by Anastasio and Goettler, and harmonies that tasted of the miraculous acid overlays in the “Presentation of the Rose.”

If these three concerts can be seen as a measure of the present and future of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its progeny, one may safely say that classical music at Tanglewood is in good hands, even in the absence of its musical director. In his recovery, we hope James Levine returns soon and thank him for both for his enduring legacy and this thoughtful programming.

Eli Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.

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  1. Thank you for this fascinating Review; I wish I could hear the concert again after reading this enlightening commentary.

    Comment by Anne Aitken — July 16, 2010 at 10:40 am

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