in: Reviews

July 16, 2012

What They Know and Love at Tanglewood’s 75th

by

1939 Banner-(courtesy of the BSO)

Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man opened the Tanglewood 75th Celebration as both announcement and summation of the concert: gratitude for those who make great things possible, tradition mingling with modernity, an air of measured pride, and a well-known work performed cleanly and energetically. If Saturday night’s program at the Koussevitzky Music Shed seemed recognizable or even “safe,” at three quarters of a century, perhaps this institution simply wanted to offer patrons what they know and love, and have a night to reflect on its legacy.

It took the drive of Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky and the magnanimity of a prestigious family in donating their estate to turn some grassroots outdoor concerts in the Berkshires with the New York (!) Philharmonic (originally called Berkshire Symphonic Festival) into the first Tanglewood concerts. On August 5, 1937 Koussevitzky and the BSO opened with an all-Beethoven program and the rest is better than history. For 75 years Tanglewood has welcomed the biggest names in classical music (and beyond) while the Tanglewood Music Center has enabled students to learn from those greats. Of course the names at Saturday’s concert read like a Tanglewood alumni directory as well as a who’s-who of the Boston classical scene, starting with the Boston Pops Orchestra conductor Keith Lockhart welcoming the crowd and asking them to smile wide and clap loud for the cameras broadcasting it all on PBS.

After leading the brass section through the Fanfare, Lockhart swung the Pops through Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s On the Town, in concert version. The Pops kept up a breezy lilt for “The Great Lover” and “Times Square: 1944,” with velvety lower reeds prominent under the lonesome muted trumpet for the slower “Lonely Town: Pas de Deux,” though at times a leaden drum backbeat weighed down the rhythm. The contrast between Copland’s sleek modernism and Bernstein’s jazz-infused theatrics highlighted the range of this ensemble and American classical music as well as the variety of composers who have worked at Tanglewood.

Singer-songwriter James Taylor’s appearance to sing American standards with former Pops director and beloved film composer John Williams stepping up to conduct raised the level of applause several decibels higher. Taylor turned out an earnest reading of “Over the Rainbow” with his distinct phrasing and a floating coda. Unfortunately he seemed to struggle with Gil Goldstein’s plush yet faceless arrangement of “Shall We Dance?” and his lower range on “Ol’ Man River” was more diffuse than resonant. Yet Taylor’s plaintive rendering of the words “…Scared, scared of dying…” illustrated why he remains such a draw at Tanglewood all these years.

Even audience members who may have attended just for Taylor warmed up to “Music Under the Moon,” a short film tribute to Tanglewood. Giggles greeted black-and-white photos of well-dressed patrons tip-toeing through puddles during the 1937 storm that precipitated the construction of the Shed, silence enveloped footage of Bernstein conducting near the end of his life, while the “bravos” just got louder and louder as names such as “Phyllis Curtin,” “Seiji Ozawa” and others were mentioned.

Yo Yo Ma and John Williams present award to a distant Seiji Ozawa (Hilary-Scott photo)

The film’s closing observation that “to tell the history of Tanglewood is to tell its future” took on an ironic tone with Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D (Hob. XVIII: II). Omitting Haydn’s smirking first movement seemed more like a concession to time than a musical choice, and while Haydn’s music remained just as spry and lyrical in pianist Emanuel Ax’s hands, this intimate work is a tricky choice for an outdoor setting. Ax took an expansive view of Haydn’s dreamy second movement Adagio to fill the space, and his introspective cadenza elicited applause even before the closing “Rondo al l’Ungherese.” Conductor Stefan Asbury maintained zesty momentum for this third and final movement, but all the fresh air simply obliterated the curves of Ax’s lines and his variety of articulation over Haydn’s repeating figures. The piece seemed like an example of lip service to tradition rather than a natural part of the program or the setting. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s cold strings didn’t help ease the feeling.

Tchaikovsky’s passionate lyricism and straightforward orchestration served Yo-Yo Ma better for the Andante Cantabile for Cello and Strings (the composer’s own reworking of the second movement of his String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 11). Starting with a throbbing yet transparent lead over the already warmer and more relaxed sounding TMC orchestra, Ma moved to a more focused, singing tone, followed by an intense vibrato for the second theme and fading out on a stirring triple piano. The cellist and worldwide favorite’s unshakeable air of gratitude on this or any other stage, as well as his habit of smiling over and back at sections as though in conversation, added to the organic atmosphere. It also made the dizzying bravura displays of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra seem that much more aloof in violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter’s interpretation. Her hollow phrasing and steely sopranino chattering displayed neither warmth nor irony.

The BSO’s performance of Ravel’s La Valse was a sudden but welcome shift, highlighting this composer’s timbral imagination as well as the orchestra and conductor Andris Nelson’s nuances of texture and rhythm. Trading off between rich blends and sections of utter transparency, Ravel’s “choreographic poem” about Vienna being consumed by a dance craze as its imperial sweep slipped away unfolded over a buoyant, building beat. It played to all of the BSO’s strengths, and the presentation of the first Tanglewood Medal by Williams and Ma to Ozawa (who could not be present due to illness) reminded the audience of the many leaders that have guided this orchestra to become the force it is today.

Ma read a letter of appreciation from Ozawa, stating, “the world will always need places to feed the soul and the spirit.” The following Beethoven’s Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra (op. 80), a jam-packed celebration of the power of music as well as the creativity of one of Boston’s favorite composers, was a fitting “Amen” to Ozawa’s words. Soloist Peter Serkin thundered and glided through Beethoven’s extended solo piano opening. Conductor David Zinman brought in the orchestra a bit cautiously, yet dynamic contrasts, especially in forte passages, remained balanced and descriptive. The BSO winds nearly stole the show during their glistening interplay with Serkin, and after a slightly jerky transition, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with soloists drawn from former and current student vocalists, extolled the power of music with power as well as clarity. Like the celebratory fireworks that followed the concert, it was both fantastic and somehow expected. This was Tanglewood’s party, and they stuck to their strengths.

Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.

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