in: Reviews

August 20, 2012

Gil Shaham & Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra


On yesterday’s glorious late summer afternoon, a wealth of music lovers gathered in and around Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed as Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos lead the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra with soloist Gil Shaham in The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert. Excitement, accomplishment, and pleasure abounded.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, op. 61 (1806). This oft-heard work is frequently performed as a late Romantic violin concerto full of Sturm und Drang, a harrowing of all intense emotions performed in the space of the work’s three movements. Gil Shaham offered a different take on this music, one which more clearly situated Beethoven in the history of western music and the history of the violin concerto as a genre. We heard late classical, veering into early romantic — Beethoven, where restraint and passion each had its place. Frühbeck de Burgos conducted with big gestures; the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra played with great assurance and the string sections, especially, must be commended for their rich sound and masterful matching of tone with Gil Shaham. Playing with vibrancy and commitment, Shaham engaged with the music and the musicians of the orchestra in a tightly cohesive call and response. He brought an elegant delicacy to the solo violin line, and his trademark sweetness of tone (as well as truly amazing, seamless bow changes). The opening Allegro ma non troppo set the stage for this exciting performance, with a wide variety of dynamics, phrasings, and tonal colors. The Larghetto was a study in forceful tenderness, precisely present and insistent but not overweening. The finale Rondo: Allegro opened, attaca, with a throaty and full violin sound, after which lightness and delicacy returned. Throughout this concerto, the musicians made a big space with lots of musicians into an intimate chamber for chamber music.

Following intermission, the orchestra returned to the stage to perform Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (premièred by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky’s direction in 1944). In five movements, this composition tests the mettle of professional orchestras with its rich, polyphonic texture, cross-rhythms, and rapid changes of character, mood, and tone. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra embraced this piece. The composer, writing a commentary for the program at the première, characterized this work as “a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement an the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” The Andante non troppo – Allegro vivace opened portentously, with weight and gravity. The Giuoco delle coppie: Allegretto scherzando revisited the themes of the first in a different mood, lighter and more playful, filled with syncopations and jazzy off-beats which gave the movement a lilt and swing absent in the first movement. The Elegia: Andante, non troppo had a dense texture and keening passion, recalling Shostakovich and here performed with intensity. The fourth movement, Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto, was a lovely blend of the lush and quirky, its playfulness and mood shifts clearly delighting the musicians. The Finale: Presto brought the whole to a triumphant conclusion. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra became more assured as the work progressed, and progressively gave themselves over to the sheer enjoyment of performing this work. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was an apposite choice for this group and this performance, capturing the emotional turmoil, vivacity, sudden reversals, and quirkiness which are so often hallmarks of the young adult years and experience, and giving the musicians an added entrance into this work.

My only complaint, and it is a big one, has nothing to do with the music or the musicians. The opening of the concert was accompanied by a lot of noise, partly from the audience and partly from the official photographer overhead; this was poor timing with a concerto, and concert that opened so softly. That problem paled in comparison, though, to a constant audio feedback. At first I thought someone nearby had a problem with a hearing aid battery, but I soon realized that far too wide a swathe of the audience was responding the sound – even the musicians on stage – for that shriek we have all heard to be the culprit. I can only conclude there was a serious problem with the sound reinforcement system. It was rude, it was disgraceful, and worse it was disrespectful to the talented and hard-working musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. This was not a problem at other Tanglewood concerts this season. I have never witnessed professional musicians (other than Gil Shaham and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, in this concert) subjected to such constant ignominy for the duration of a concert. The audio engineer should be fired for such shoddy work which lasted the duration of this concert. A sincere and public apology to the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra would be nice, but hardly rectifies such an egregious lapse in technique and decorum. It is utterly inexcusable to treat the next generation of classical musicians in such a cavalier and dismissive fashion.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


  1. According to sources in-the-know, it was a very persistent hearing aid which disturbed our reviewer, the performers and the audience. “Hearing aids will squeal when their batteries start to fail, and they tend to be loudest when surrounding noise is soft. It acts just the opposite of speaker feedback.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 20, 2012 at 11:13 pm

  2. I was also at this performance and agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer – a wonderful and engaging performance marred by an inexcusable audio feedback problem. There were two distinct “squeals” taking place, registers about a 4th apart. If this was a hearing aid, it must have been two – and what are the chances? This was not the ambient shrieking of a small battery operated device – I agree this must have been an audio engineering problem. Either way, why didn’t concert staff or Tanglewood volunteers rectify the problem in the 2nd half?

    Comment by Nadia Bylsma — August 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm

  3. Another BSO source has weighed in, this time one who heard the concert from the lawn. There was no high pitched squeal emanating from the sound reinforcement system. Therefore, if the squeal was only audible from within the shed, where there were no active loudspeakers, then the offensive sounds must have emanated from hearing aids.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 23, 2012 at 8:40 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.