In some ways the two concerts presented at Tanglewood on August 14 exhibited divergent aspects of performance: one, a grand demonstration of orchestral and choral vigor by the young up-and-coming Fellows of Tanglewood Music Center, the other a trio of acknowledged superstars prepared to charm their fans with an intricate display of wit and virtuosity. Yet both the all-Brahms program of the TMC Orchestra with Festival Chorus and the chamber concert by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, and Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, invited rumination on the public nature of music: the process by which something intensely personal and intimate is turned outward for presentation to the crowds of concert-goers converging on Tanglewood for a summer musical party.
In the case of Brahms, this process started some hundred and fifty-odd years ago, when the composer decided to vent the doom and gloom in his heart through poetry, operatic leaps, and trombones. Experts have devoted much scholarship to the methods by which Brahms chose to express his famously introverted angst, such as choral settings of grim poetic reflections on the destruction of mythological Greek beauties (Nänie by Friedrich Schiller), divine disregard for human summering (Schicksalslied on text by Friedrich Hölderlin), and an appeal for the dark soul of a misanthropic youth (Alto Rhapsody on text by Goethe). In the famous irony of the artist, feelings of isolation and despair are manifested through the unified power of chorus and orchestra, and the white jacket-clad young musicians on the Shed stage, under the direction of BSO music director-candidate Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, dug into the lush harmonies and aching melodies with engaging pathos.
The afternoon’s opening piece, a fanfare for brass and percussion by Frühbeck de Burgos on Brahmsian themes, was majestically but tastefully brassy; however it faltered somewhat in shaky trumpet and horn solos. Nänie (op. 82) was shaped in large but gentle waves, sections for chorus with solo woodwind doublings giving way to the restrained blossoming and tapering of the orchestra. Schicksalslied (op. 54) followed with more vigor, the instrumental opening offering the strings a chance for melodic extroversion that contrasted nicely with delicate woodwind counterpoint against the female voices. Although not very familiar with the Shed, I am inclined to blame acoustics when complaining of loss of clarity at the upper dynamic ends; the effect of climactic points with full chorus was something like poor speakers leveling out, and even soft sections were pleasingly misty but indistinct. And as is often the case with a large number of excellent musicians gathered for a short time, individual voices occasionally stuck out of the texture.
Coming to the front of the stage for Alto Rhapsody, (op. 53), soloist Stephanie Blythe had no such problems of indistinctness. She brought forth the most angst yet with her growling timbre on (very!) low notes and zestful dig into the German syllables, and her acrobatic range-crossing leaps elicited a sympathetic throb in my throat. The male half of the chorus, separated from her by a seemingly great distance, shadowed her like a slightly out-of-focus picture; the overall effect, however, was perfectly disturbing and passionate.
After intermission, it was energizing to hear the full force of the orchestra, with reinforced celli and basses, finally released in the powerful opening of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. The arrival of greatly anticipated moments of emotional beauty — the first movement’s achingly harmonized second theme in the low strings, the cello choir opening the second movement, the nostalgic lilting of the woodwinds in the third, the climactic build in the fourth — were all satisfyingly delivered. During transitions, Frühbeck de Burgos seemed simply to fold the orchestra’s sound away before gracefully restarting in the new character, an elegant and unobtrusive method that the orchestra followed with estimable balance. Everyone on stage navigated the tricky layers and shifts of rhythm with similar aplomb, managing for the most part to be sharp and articulate without loosing a larger sense of flow and phrasing. The fourth movement’s opening theme, which never rises above a piano dynamic, was particularly well executed, having substance and motion while never seeming suppressed or hurried.
Returning to Ozawa Hall for “Yo-Yo & Friends” in the evening, the warm lighting and fragrant wood seemed cozy in comparison to the amphitheater-like atmosphere of the Shed, and the program notes began on a related theme: the evolution of chamber music during Schubert, Beethoven, and Brahms’s time from home music-making to the professionalized concert hall. The emphasis on setting was entirely apt, for as soon as the performers took the stage it was immediately apparent that Ozawa Hall is quite a leap from the nineteenth-century drawing rooms and salons for which the pieces were composed. Of course, this music is still played in living rooms, at parties, and in smaller scale concerts today, and the versatility of technique that can convince listeners in any setting is a truly professional skill. Ma, Ax, and McGill — all three top quality musicians — clearly planned their performance for a hall full of enthusiastic fans; any listener at the same performance in a drawing room would likely have been deafened, showered with sweat, and dodging limbs and bow.
Setting (medium-sized concert hall with open back wall) and audience (fans) explain why the descriptors of the performance that come first to mind are “showy” and “flashy.” Ma and McGill especially are showmen, with musicality, of course. The twist is that they are showy about just the sort of elements that inspire people to describe a chamber music concert as an “intimate experience.” If anyone can ham up sensitivity and nuance, it is these gentlemen. “Yes!” said my seatmate when I tried to describe this quasi-oxymoron. “It’s like they have this wonderful secret that’s so great, they can’t wait to share it with everybody!”
Indeed, somebody let McGill in on the string players’ secret that is Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata (D 821). A standby (in my own experience) of the awkward intermediate-level violist, it seemed on the page like an odd choice of showpiece for a young accomplished clarinetist. Yet in the hands of McGill and Ax it became a virtuoso vehicle, not least because McGill made the piece, written for an obsolete six-stringed instrument, sound completely idiomatic. Although both players got a bit of a chance to show their technical chops in lightening-quick sixteenth-note exchanges, the true virtuosity was McGill’s utter ease of expression. He augmented mastery of tone color, rubato, and articulation with body motions reminiscent of everything from a snake charmer to a tightly coiled spring to a past-midnight club musician. The first movement’s opening theme, begun unassumingly in the midst of rain and audience shuffling, was a charmingly inviting introduction to the evening. And contortions aside, hearing the deceptively simple slow movement in the un-vibrated blend of piano and clarinet was breathtaking.
Ma and Ax took their seats for Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major (op. 69) in an odd arrangement: Ma seated slightly behind Ax so that they were looking away from each other. They replaced eye contact with leaning towards each other so much that at times it looked like they were attached by a string running from Ax’s right ear to Ma’s left. Ma emphasized the loudest points with sheer physical exuberance, rising halfway from his seat, pushing his instrument to the left to get more leverage out of the end of a down-bow, and throwing down and lifting up his bow from an unusually great height above the string. The upshot of all this, however, was that he had more of a dynamic and dramatic range from which to craft his phrases, of which the accompanimental and declamatory were as gracefully shaped as the melodic. I’ve witnessed many string players looking lost and awkward in the accompanying role in a Beethoven sonata; not so Ma. And the string-between-the-ears method obviously works: the unison opening phrase of the last Allegro sounded spontaneous, perfectly balanced, and so quiet that it inspired breath-holding to fully appreciate the clarity.
The second half of the program consisted of the Brahms Clarinet Trio (op. 114), which, like the Schubert, began with the sort of nonchalance that added a bit of welcoming living room atmosphere. The players exploited both their ability to blend and their timbral uniqueness, beginning an exchange homogeneously, for instance, before drifting into the low growl of the cello and high sparkle of the clarinet. The adagio built to an almost operatic fervor, while the scherzo was appropriately light and effortless-sounding. The final movement exhibited the most schizophrenic zaniness from Ma and McGill, through which Ax served as a stabilizing presence. However, the skill, control, and intention underlying even the most high-spirited parts were evident in the perfect coordination of the layered arpeggios circling the trio.
I admit to feeling the connoisseur’s need to smirk a bit at Ma and company’s flourishes and theatricality. But this sort of approach is what makes them so beloved. “I’m really excited to be performing this music for you!” it says, “Being a great musician isn’t a mystery, see? And the best part is that all of you are here to listen!”
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.