The prospect of this season at Tanglewood did not tingle the spines of many musicologists, and certainly not enough audience-goers. More’s the pity. The prevailing view that this summer’s offerings are ordinary ignores this summer’s inherent drama: what conductors might be in the running to take over as BSO music director, not to mention interpretations of this “ordinary fare” that just might be way beyond ordinary. This afternoon’s concert (July 30) in the Tanglewood Shed with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Mahler Symphony No. 1 was spectacular. And cellist Alisa Weilerstein in the Haydn Cello Concert No. 1 was not “astonishing,” if one knows her playing; it was predictably polished, perfectly executed, sensitively played.
Alisa Weilerstein is from a local musical family that includes her parents and her younger brother Joshua (concertmaster of Discovery Ensemble and just appointed assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic). How pleased these parents must be. She plays with them in the New England Conservatory-based Weilerstein Trio, but she is also developing an increasingly busy solo schedule in a repertoire so far belying her academic career — a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Russian history (!). She is a champion of contemporary music.
Nonetheless, from the first notes of her entrance in the close-to-250-year-old Haydn Cello Concert, she demonstrated wonderful dynamics and tempo, with subtle pauses that seemed just right. The respectful, rapt audience in the hall and even on the lawn allowed her delicate pianissimos and drawn-out solo passages in the second movement to be savored. It may be an anachronism to use the term, but it seems so appropriate to call her rapid, right-on-intonation playing in the third movement, “bel canto from the cello.” The long line waiting to see her during intermission indicated that the audience knew they had witnessed a rising star.
As someone who heard Mahler at the BSO back in the early 1950s and who had, among only six LPs owned during a two-year enforced servitude (through marriage) in the US Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, NC, the Bruno Walter/NY Philharmonic recording of the Mahler First (from Book Clearing House — anyone remember it?), I am more than familiar with this symphony. But today’s performance has to be one of the best I have ever heard. The back-and-forth re: tone poem or symphony to the contrary, it is almost impossible hearing such a performance from Eschenbach not to see the creation of the Mahler landscape, from the slow awakening in a quiet sunrise to shimmering appearance of the sun, the brief call from four off-stage trumpets before the minor-key shadows of the cellos, then the peaceful bustle of the main theme, replete with strong, two-note bird so strongly accented by the conductor. The entire mood struck this reviewer as more “pastoral” than that other famous symphony.
Jessica Zhou’s harp was a key initiator of many thematic elements. Her pizzicato, echoed by the clarinets, then the flutes, was beautiful.
Other notable moments overseen by Eschenbach were the descending notes on the strings, increasingly pianissimo in the second movement, and in the third, the sensuous sway of the clarinets with the interrupting oom-pah-pah of the “band” — precursors of Ives? — and the frantic orchestral scream, with the roar of the tuba, to the gorgeous catharsis from violins and cellos, then full strings. The eight stand-up horns did indeed “drown out everything else with the song of joyous triumph,” as Steven Ledbetter’s excellent notes informed us was Mahler’s specific instruction.
The united, spontaneous scream of delight from the audience, jumping to it feet, indicated they it, too, found the performance outstanding. The audience also had a chance to thank retiring first percussionist Frank Epstein for forty-three years of devoted service to the BSO.
As a BSO savant said in the parking lot afterwards, “Everything fell into place.” Amen.