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Trains, Ships, and Opium at Tanglewood


Lauren Maazel and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Hilary Scott photo)

Under the baton of  Lorin Maazel, the BSO welcomed guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5, a newly commissioned work by Boston composer Michael Gandolfi, and Berlioz’s iconic Symphonie Fantastique at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed on Sunday afternoon. Each of the pieces was programmatic, and each in its own way, a physical (or metaphysical) journey.

Michael Gandolfi’s Night Train to Perugia opened with only a brief moment of pensive, timeless shimmering and quickly transformed into an exciting ride of perpetual rhythmic drive. In a short six minutes, the piece travels through a wide array of harmonic and modal worlds, with scalar figures ripping through the strings as the winds and brass swell in and out of the texture. The piece, Gandolfi claims, is influenced by quantum physics and surrealist art. These points of inspiration certainly turned out a vivid and compelling result, as the piece goes well beyond merely being another-piece-about-trains. The center does employ the tried-and-true trope of train sounds in the winds, backed by the motoric chugging of percussion and strings, though these sounds seemed to evolve out of the musical material, eventually seeping back into the texture and development, making the potentially devastating cliché far more tactful and effective than one would expect. The ending seemed a bit cheated, though, with a return of the shimmering stillness that opened the piece, followed by a rather arbitrary bombastic stinger. The piece was surely exciting enough; it earned the right to end quietly. Having an overwhelming sense of finality in a concert opener is just one of those conventions that always seems to prevail.

Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5, dubbed the “Egyptian,” as the piece was composed entirely during the composer’s vacation in Luxor, Egypt (not Cairo, as the BSO’s program noted), is only mildly spiced with the modal stylings of North African music. In fact the stylistic influences of the piece, which seem to include everything from Gregorian chant, Nubian folk music, and music from the Spanish and Chinese traditions, are perhaps too well traveled to feel cohesive. The composer described the piece as a journey to the East, and in some moments the Far East, though it was one of the composer’s first biographers who more specifically suggested the rhythmic drive of the finale is in fact that of boat propellers on a sea voyage.

Overall, the “Egyptian” is far from being one of the more enthralling products of French exoticism in the late 19th century. But the Andante is one of the most gripping through-composed movements Saint-Saëns has to offer (that I know of), shifting through drastically contrasting episodes of distantly related musical ideas with elegance. The piece is undeniably virtuosic by any period’s standards, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s performance, with the perfect balance of disciplined control and emotive dynamism, may have given piano virtuoso Saint-Saëns himself a run for his money. The chemistry between Maazel and his musicians was at its best when Thibaudet was on stage.

Maazel’s meticulously sculpted attention to dynamic contrast was at its most evocative in the performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  The interpretation was certainly closer to the Classical realm, without the Romantic spaciousness and rhythmic flexibility that is characteristic of most recordings I’ve heard. In a way, this interpretation was refreshing, though such a conservative approach seemed to become less and less compatible with the composition itself towards the final movements.  Berlioz’s orchestrational ingenuity in this masterpiece is flattering for any ensemble that can do Symphonie Fantastique justice. At its most dramatic moments, the sheer power of the orchestra must have sent chills through even the furthest listeners on the lawn; it’s always exciting to hear the BSO’s monumental brass section really earning their keep. Whatever the interpretive direction of the piece lacked in lyrical malleability, it made up for in dynamic contrast and force. My only gripe with Maazel was with the quantity of his unnecessary stage theatrics, which reached the point of absurdity in the finale. He flamboyantly cued every single syncopated chime hit in the finale, which does no service to anyone (particularly the percussionists), and is probably only enticing to the most inattentive and disengaged audience members.

The BSO received a standing ovation, as usual, and probably deservedly. The more heartfelt tributes occurred afterwards, as the BSO said farewell to two of its retiring veterans: violist Marc Jeanneret, who joined in 1977, and trombonist Douglas Yeo, in 1985.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a widely performed composer of chamber, orchestral, and electroacoustic music. He is currently on faculty at Brandeis University.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Excellent review, though this concert took place Sunday afternoon and not Saturday night.

    Comment by NL — August 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm

  2. Thanks, NL- copy edited.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm

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