in: Reviews

July 10, 2012

Schuller’s Charming Dreamscape at Tanglewood


Last Sunday evening in the Tanglewood Music Center’s Ozawa Hall, the TMC Orchestra performed Dvořák, Respighi, Schuller, and Prokofiev. Dvořák’s overture In Nature’s Realm (Op. 91), conducted by Alexandre Bloch (TMC Fellow), a pleasant if rather derivative work, was performed with great dash and determination. Respighi’s Fontane di Roma, which followed, is, if anything, an even more obviously derivative work (the dawn mists around the fountain of the Valle Giulia were pilfered from Siegfried’s forest), but it too is a pleasant work. The Triton fountains are great fun, the fountain of Trevi is bombastic and filled with walloping brass. Here too, the orchestra, conducted by Vlad Agachi (also a TMC fellow), flung itself to its task with great enthusiasm and vigor.

After the intermission came the premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape, a TMC commission, conducted by the composer himself. I was alarmed on reading the program notes before the concert to see that the title is indeed intended to be taken literally — Schuller declares that he dreamt the whole thing, “ranging from its overall form and conception to an amazing amount of specific detail,” and scribbled most of it down in haste when he woke, before the dream vanished in the morning. It was a justifiable alarm.  I have encountered dream works before, and they rarely stand up to daylight except as works of inadvertent comedy. It was a delightful relief, therefore, when Dreamscape turned out to have fully lived up to its dream-reputation. In three movements, it is a work of unusual complexity and charm, with a range of mood far wider than most. The opening “Scherzo umoristico e curioso” is a wild, hilarious farce — like the Marx Brothers’ antics turned into musical form. The “Nocturne” is (as Schuller’s dream insisted that it be) “dark and somber.” The third movement, which Schuller’s notes say the dream called Genesis but which was listed in the program as “Birth-Evolution-Culmination” (I cannot help wondering if this was intended as a philosophical-political statement), unfolds from its darkly restrained opening to a most frantic culmination, like a magician’s box which unfolds to ever more complex and fantastical structures as you watch. After the applause (well earned by the orchestra as well as the composer) Schuller waved the audience silent and plaintively begged us to believe him that it really was all composed by a dream.

The great disappointment of the evening was the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet suite (actually extracts from the two suites smashed together) which closed the program. The conductor (Miguel Harth-Bedoya) seemed to have only two ideas — that energetic passages should be AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE — and that quiet, contemplative, or sorrowful passages are boring and should be got through as fast as possible. His cues were thoroughly unclear; I am mystified why he bothers to hold a baton when half the time he conducts with it wobbling vaguely towards his left shoulder and half the time it is clutched in his fist while he punches the air. For the first time in the evening, the orchestra, though previously exemplary, had obvious difficulties both with tuning and with ragged entrances. Prokofiev’s sensitive, skillful music deserved a better interpreter, and the TMC’s skillful young members deserved a better leader.

Tamar Hestrin Grader, a harpsichordist, received her A.B. in Music from Harvard in May.

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