We felt a bit of cognitive dissonance at seeing more than 200 musicians on stage for a Bellini opera, and though we know that Wagner admired Bellini, what was Wotan, in the person of James Morris, doing there? Well, what they were all doing was providing nothing less than high drama for the 6,000 opening night gala attendees in the Koussevitzky Shed—gala and generous the performances were!
James Levine “proposed” and Charles Dutoit “disposed” the overture and first act of Bellini’s Norma for the entire first half of the concert. The amazing Tanglewood Festival chorus was on hand for something like its 900th BSO engagement. Performing from memory as is their wont, they were hair-raising when in full cry, to the extent that they covered the opening utterances of James Morris. But their introduction of Norma’s “Casta diva” was masterful, and soprano Angela Meade was able to soar above the combined forces of chorus and orchestra with ease. Her singing in fact banished recollections of Joan Sutherland or just about any other diva in the role.
Even more ardent was the Pollione, Sicilian tenor Roberto De Biasio. His was real bel canto singing, but with power and deep dramatic involvement, and he sounded like a young José Carreras. One would like to see De Biasio on stage. The polished contribution of the dramatic mezzo Kristine Jepson as Adalgisa was wrenching.
Rossini’s Overture to William Tell is a chestnut that the BSO has been trumpeting since its second season in 1883. Jules Eskin made the most of the solo cello introduction, even though the audience was taken a bit by surprise by his quiet eloquence. Perhaps a better signal for the audience from the conductor was needed here. By the time cellist Martha Babcock joined him for their bel canto duet, decorum was restored. But when the trumpet intoned the familiar da-da-dum da-da-dum, da-da-dum-dum-dum theme, there were many elbows, titters and guffaws in the audience —though one assumes those were from New Yorkers, not sophisticated Bostonians! Dutoit even permitted himself some knowing smirks.
The trio from Act III of Verdi’s I Lombardi also begins with quiet subtlety — this time from concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. His opening extended solo was brilliant and carried convincingly in the shed. The orchestra played just fine for Dutoit, but Verdi’s “big guitar” accompaniment was provided as a mere courtesy to the excellent trio of vocalists. This time we could hear James Morris as Pagano quite well. We are happy to declare that he can still stand and deliver sonorous and dramatic tones over a wide range. The years have been very kind to his instrument. The other soloists, soprano Angela Mead as Giselda and tenor Roberto De Biasio, as Oronte, in their second appearances of the evening gave something extra — dramatic impersonation of character and engagement with each other.
The evening ended with a rousing yet well detailed performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The acoustics of the shed are known to be remarkable. Pianissimos of soloists carry clearly and bloom wonderfully in the two seconds of reverberation. The chirping of birds and other coloristic effects also made their desired effects, and the piece proceeded with Bolero-esq inevitability. The ending was properly enormous, though one regretted being unable to hear the organ that James David Christie was mightily stoking. Its loss of power is perhaps a casualty of its placement behind the otherwise successful Bolt, Beranek and Newman “cloud” shell from 1959.
The evening had begun at 6 pm in Seiji Ozawa Hall with one of Tanglewood’s trademark Prelude Concerts, which the BSO provides gratis before every evening Symphony performance to anyone with a lawn pass or shed ticket. This represents both good PR and good crowd control, inasmuch as it encourages some of the audience to arrive early enough to avoid delays in parking and admission. In last night’s concert there were certainly some real pleasures.
For me, in fact, the highlight of the entire evening’s opening festivities was Schubert’s heavenly Quintet in C for two violins, viola and two cellos op D.956, dispatched with sovereign command by Alexander Velinzon, violin; Tatiana Dimitriades, violin; Steven Ansell, viola; Jonathan Miller, cello; and Owen Young, cello. While it some ways the piece is a concerto for first violin and string quartet, on another level it requires a tremendous discipline of ensemble to bring off. It has all the best of Schubert, from poignant melancholic musings to lively German dances. And this performance had performers of the highest caliber who were well rehearsed yet who permitted themselves great freedom of expression and who took obvious delight in the proceedings.
The Schubert was preceded by a performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello — his modernist attempt to meet Debussy halfway. Cellist Jonathan Miller and violinist Tatiana Dimitriades tossed it off with comparative ease, though with some tuning issues probably related to humid, summer festival, conditions.
5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
“Rossini’s Overture to William Tell is a chestnut that the BSO has been trumpeting since its second season in 1883.”
This is opposition to Ron Dellachiesa’s on-air assertion that the BSO (as opposed to the Pops) has hardly performed this at all since before World War II.
Comment by josh nannestad — July 10, 2011 at 12:43 am
The BSO has probably not played the William Tell Overture since before World War II, but the Pops has done it often. For a time in the 1980s I was immersed in Pops history, and, though I was never able to prove it in detail, I thought it very likely that the William Tell Overture had been performed in every single season of the Boston Pops–or as near as makes no difference. This sort of thing has happened with many orchestras that have Pops concerts. Pieces that were once among the most welcome in the symphony programs have been relegated to the Pops, where they are seen as somehow less “important,” though the still retain the qualities that made the overwhelmingly popular in the first place.
Comment by Steven Ledbetter — July 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm
Well according to Richard Dyer’s program notes, the “William Tell Overture” was played in Tanglewood for the first time in 1977 and most recently in 2009. Dunno how many times the BSO and Pops played it since 1883. Maybe Brian Bell or Bridget Carr will enlighten us.
Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 10, 2011 at 6:12 pm
As usual, the truth is the most amazing.
Probably makes the most sense just to give you the script from last Friday’s broadcast:
The BSO performance card shows the William Tell Overture, even in the earliest days of the orchestra, was just too popular to be in the “high-brow” Symphony concerts. Back in the 1880s, when the orchestra was just getting established, it would play William Tell in Wakefield, Lowell, Taunton, Lynn, Salem, New Bedford, Newport, Worcester, but rarely in Boston, and even then, it would be on a Youth or Pension Fund concert.
It has NEVER appeared on a Symphony Hall Thursday -Friday- Saturday subscription program.
Only on the lighter Tuesday evening concerts during Koussevitzky’s tenure, was the William Tell performed, on April 26th, 1927 & the most recent Boston performance, if you can believe it, was on April 7th, 1936.
Since then Tanglewood has only heard it four times, twice during Tanglewood on Parade.
—-END FRIDAY SCRIPT—
Now the two Tanglewood on Parade performances were in 1977 with Arthur Fiedler; and the other was
in 2009 with James Levine. I clearly remember one of the others, in July 2003, which
happened to be the BSO/T’wood debut of Miguel Harth-Bedoya. And Steven Ledbetter is quite correct,
Fiedler conducted the piece constantly! Not that long ago I transferred his 1937 Pops recording
(which was on 2 10″ 78rpm discs, dividing the four sections of the Overture rather nicely)–
the big surprise there is some of the differences in the melodic line of the English Horn solo, and
then the last note of the trumpet call does not end on the tonic, but goes up a major third!
And, like all of Fiedler’s other pre-war 78s, the performance is absolutely on fire.
Comment by Brian Bell — July 11, 2011 at 9:40 am
IMDB lists 161 instances of the William Tell Overture used in film scores beginning with “The Hollywood Revue of 1929” and ending with “Day and Night” from 2011. This has to be worthy of Guinness.
Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 14, 2011 at 8:37 pm
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