In a concert on August 13 at Tanglewood that wove together soft-edged visual and auditory impressions of the lands of the Incas, Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in seven short works of varying quality and one flashy encore. Only three made lasting impressions, Illapa, a tone Poem for Flute and Orchestra composed in 2004 by Gabriela Lena Frank, Mariel for Cello and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov (2008), and Fiesta, by Jimmy Lopez (2007). The Lopez work offered some real density and juice, and affecting solo appearances by the BSO’s own principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, and the young cello virtuoso, Alisa Weilerstein, brought dignity and aesthetic substance to their platforms.
The encore, Ary Barroso and Xavier Cugat’s pop hit, “Brazil,” was offered in an arrangement that drew on every Samba cliché in the book. Were the program notes to have included Cugat’s own words, they would have served the listener well: “I would rather play Chiquita Banana and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.”
But as Frank Sinatra would have said, “Everybody finished together, and nobody got hurt.”
A large movie screen dominated the stage, nearly obscuring the orchestra that played with illuminated music stands. (Note: the annual Tanglewood “film night” was scheduled the following night.) From the two large video projectors hung over the middle of the Shed, fan noises gave a breezy ostinato that obscured the details of every piano passage. Some pretty photographs of Machu Picchu, some taken from the adjacent Huayna Picchu mountain, along with 18th-century watercolors of Peruvian village life, fit nicely with the first two pieces on the program, the evocations of traditional songs by the early-20th-century composer, Alberto Alomia Robles, entitled El condor pasa (The condor passes) and an 18th-century proselytizing bishop, Baltasar Martinez y Companon, Coleccion de musica virreinal (Collection of Vice-Royal Music).
In the first of several short speeches, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya noted that the latter work was composed at about the same time that Mozart was writing The Marriage of Figaro. While each work used European compositional and orchestrational devices, however, neither approached mastery nor gave substance to the quoted indigenous melodies and rhythms. Rather, these were flattened, sweetened, mashed into diatonic harmonies, and otherwise deracinated and sterilized. That all the bishop’s watercolors displayed dancing Colonials gave an ironic verisimilitude to the first portion of the program.
Responsorio, by Diego Luzuriaga, evoked in nine minutes the mountains of Ecuador, with drums, flutes, and repeated themes in Aeolian mode. Some pretty overlays of muted trumpet on a ground of cello pizzicatos and an ineluctable crescendo toward the end signaled Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras and Stravinky’s Sacre du Printemps. Responsorio, however, came across neither as the work of a mature composer nor as a serious representation of its musical inspirations. The orchestration, heavy on the flutes and piccolo, didn’t begin to summon the life and verve of panpipes and their drummers. In the end, the build-up plodded to a half-hearted bass-drum bang.
Next followed a moment of embarrassment, if not an argument for more and better conservatory instruction in the humanities. “Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards,” Harth-Bedoya announced, “language was not written down, and music and pottery carried the culture.” Such was the Eurocentrism, if not triumphalism, that justified the innumerable cruelties visited on the Inca and Mayan by the conquistadores.
But the composer of Illapa, a tone poem for flute and orchestra, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru who has distinguished herself not only as a composer but also as an ethnomusicologist, clearly knew better. Gabriela Lena Frank’s idea was to capture the legendary dialogue, echoing across the Andes, between the eponymous weather god and the people in the valleys below, symbolized by percussion and traditional bamboo flute. Elizabeth Rowe, elegant in a coral gown, gave flight to the drama, counterpoising precisely articulated repeated low notes against percussion hits of claves and drums at the outset, defying gravity into the stratosphere, embracing the enterprise in a warm humanity of subtle shadings and dynamic nuances. In the return to the first theme, after a development reminiscent of Bartok and Hindemith and the familiar G tonality, Rowe’s exquisite duet with cello principal Jules Eskin, and then low-register violins and trumpets, depicted the aspiration to spiritual transcendence, surmounting the clatter of the percussion and the assertive dissonances in the trombones. Before a final strike of the claves, tremolo basses and pianissimo woodwinds supported a series of eerie high trills that magnificently showcased Rowe’s expressivity and utter mastery of her instrument. One had the impression that humanity – and indeed, culture – had held its own.
Golijov’s Mariel, originally written for cello and marimba in 1999, saw its orchestral premiere in 2008. Like his Blue, commissioned by the BSO three seasons ago, the work features washes of color with sustained chords that simultaneously envelop and mystify the listener, who wonders “Where is this going?” and “Why?” Here, in the absence of plausible development, there was an underpinning story, the tragic death of a friend. The composer’s words expressed his intentions to emulate the “waves and echoes of the Brazilian music that Mariel loved,” in which he “let the melodies and harmonies lead the music to a wider range of emotion.” Through these ambiguities, Alisa Weilerstein wove a tapestry of hope, love, sadness, and optimism, in a radiant, sonorous, nuanced series of arching phrases, wisps of fleeting melody, among interesting orchestral voicings, for example with harp, trombone, and chime. The accompanying color shadings and patterns on the screen above made absolutely no sense to this listener, as when, for example, a passage featuring marimba, bass drum, and English horn shifted to pink, and while the cello wailed in the upper register for a good 10 seconds, without a discernable change in the instrumental timbre, the color suddenly transmogrified to bright orange. Were it not for the glorious cello, this would have been a tissue of contradictory sound and fury, or rather son et lumiere, signifying rien.
Sadly, Alisa Weilerstein’s cello was closely miked, creating occasional distortions and odd overtones. That splendid artist neither needed, nor deserved, this enhancement. At one point, when the cello moved suddenly to a vibrato-less line in the lower register, it sounded like an entirely different instrument. One looked around in a vain effort to discern where on the stage the sound was coming from. Was it a high contrabass, the English horn without Robert Sheena’s ravishing natural vibrato?
Alfonso Leng’s 1905 Preludio No. 1 was a curious, three-minute trifle by a self-taught composer who, according to the program notes, achieved international recognition as a specialist in the dental subspecialty of odontology. Jacques Offenbach loomed as his inspiration, but the formulaic harmonies and absence both of intelligent melodic development and Latin sensibility made one wish that he had stuck with his day gig. It was perhaps just as well that at this point in the program, the buzzing projectors gave the audience the gift of a purple, geometric screen-saver with a circular hole in its center.
Four Pop Dances for Orchestra by Jimmy Lopez gave many moments of redemption. Composed in 2007 by a 22-year-old Peruvian, this was a muscular work that mixed ethnic references to Latin America with overlaid African rhythms, juiced up with delicious bits of old-time rumba and cha-cha, contemporary techno-pop, and jazz. There were riffs in the strings, rhythmic exchanges between the woodwinds and the brass, and a general sense of delighted experimentation. Suddenly, a conga-line formed over a powerful pedal C, the deep fundamental of Mike Roylance’s splendidly sonorous tuba pouring like molten brass, and the orchestra danced, faster and faster, to the edge of chaos. At last, some music you could sink your teeth into! The piece drew to a surprising close, after a burst of Spanish rhythms, on a sustained, unadorned perfect fifth, just barely suggesting a diamond-clear C chord.
Here, finally, it appeared that one could play Bach and keep the swimming pool.