in: Reviews

July 11, 2013

TMC Orchestra Exudes Eclectic Excitement

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Monday night the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra played Ozawa Hall with verve and panache in an eclectic program of music by Kodály, Harbison, and Beethoven.

The concert opened with Zoltán Kodály, Dances of Galánta. Based on Hungarian folk music collected by Kodály, this work draws its musical inspiration from a “gypsy band” active since at least 1800 in Galánta, a “small Hungarian market town known to travelers between Vienna and Budapest” (as the composer wrote in his preface to the music’s publication, and repeated in the program notes). The five sections of this work (all played attaca) proceed in the style of verbunkos, “a hybrid genre combining European classical dance-music forms, folk tunes, and fiery gypsy embellishment”; since military recruiters used this style of music to fire up enlistees, the trademark of verbunkos is full-bodied exuberance combined with pyrotechnical displays of virtuosity. The musical idiom recalls the Hungarian Dances of Brahms (among many other musical forays incorporating Bohemian tunes into classical western European compositions), although the orchestration is awash in the colors and timbres of Kodály. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, conducted by Ciarán McAuley (TMC Conducting Fellow), performed these dances with passion, conviction, and energy; there was great coherence across all the sections of the orchestra, and a remarkable clarity and precision to the entire performance. The clarinet solo by Gabriel Campos Zamora was gorgeous. McAuley proved himself an agile and expressive conductor, and the orchestra responded unstintingly.

The second work on this program was John Harbison’s Closer to My Own Life (2011), for mezzo-soprano (Reilly Nelson, a TMC Fellow) and orchestra (here led by TMC Conducting Fellow Stilian Kirov). This work sets four prose passages from Alice Munro’s 2006 collection, The View from Castle Rock. Munro is known for the compressed beauty and power of her magisterial short stories; there is a quiet power and grace suffusing her writings, based largely on the accretion of meaning, sometimes devastating reversals, and her deft hand with language, character, and pacing. I wonder if this is the first time her words have been set to music? It is challenging to excerpt a passage, which so quickly loses its force when bereft of context, and also to match the literary tone in a musical setting. These four sections – “I. Home”; “II. Lying under the apple tree”; “III. What do you want to know for?”, and “IV. Messenger”, use words from the conclusion of short stories (adapted with the author’s permission, Harbison writes) to address four key questions for Munro (origins, desire, mortality, and memory). The similarity of themes brought to mind Barber’s Knoxville, Summer of 1915; in that composition the prose rhythm of Agee’s text sets the musical rhythm for Barber’s notes. For Harbison, however, there is a greater sense of distance between words and notes. Here the lyricism is more melodic, with rhythmic figurations punctuating the spaces between the words. The melody embraces uncommon intervals and demands a wide vocal range. The vocal line, ably sung by Nelson, unfolds more like recitatives than arias. Nelson brought great support, tone and enunciation to this part. Her command of the music is impressive, as she handily dispatched leaps and jumps in the voice part. Kirov and the TMC Orchestra collaborated with Nelson to offer a solid reading of this work. In the end, though, I found Harbison’s work disappointing because of the distance between words and music; I could not reconcile those two worlds. For all that Harbison loves Munro’s writings, I think as artists they are perhaps too different one from the other for a successful collaboration such as this. This led me, driving home from the concert, to ponder Harbison’s place in the narrative of music history. Stylistically, and chronologically, Harbison would seem to be a “post-dodecaphonic neo-neo-romantic.” His harmonic language is not twelve-tone, but it does draw upon harmonies and progressions that fall outside common practice conventions. Melodies embrace unusual intervals. For all that, the music remains connected to common practice—forms and conventions are respected, acknowledged rather than overthrown, acting as a set of loose parameters (not engraved rules) which can be pushed or drop by the wayside at will. Rhythmic impulses from jazz color the music, while there is often a lushness that recalls 20th-century musical neo-romanticism even as Harbison says something different with his works. By contrast, Munro’s place in literary history occupies a vastly different space. The differences in their craft leave me grappling with the impulses voiced in Closer to My Own Life.  I found that tension less animating than distancing.

Following intermission, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos took the stage to conduct the TMC Orchestra in a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C, op. 67. There was passion here, even unto the last stand of a section, capturing the Sturm und Drang of this music. At the same time there was an intimation of the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution (heard in the precise rhythms, the tyranny of metronomic precision, and forcefully repetitive marcato passages)—here critiqued for its automation and loss of personality. This is not so manifest in readings of this symphony; here it worked perfectly. The fugato in the Scherzo Allegro third movement was played with a remarkable intensity and ferocity, giving additional voice to  Frühbeck’s atypical take on this warhorse piece. And for the first time in my listening experience, all of the movements were played attaca. The sum of all these parts? It was glorious! It was lusty! It was rapturous! It was delicious! It was a performance worthy of Beethoven himself.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, 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.

3 Comments

  1. Cashman,
    I enjoyed this review enormously. Have you read last week in the N.Y. Times that Alice Munro has declared she will not write any more? She cites the example of Philip Roth, and says she wants a social life now that she is a widow. Those who adore her must, as she says, reread. I’ve read almost all of her writing, and would be happy never to hear it with music. She is perfection just as she is. I thought your description of her fiction was simply brilliant.

    Comment by Susan Miron — July 11, 2013 at 6:12 pm

  2. In the Beethoven did FdB play the repeats?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — July 12, 2013 at 8:36 am

  3. Were u at the musical rendition? I’ve read the book by alice munro and the opera presented would do alice munro proud…she was unable to attend due to advancing age but her representatives were; i would love to hear their comments

    Comment by dorothy bianchi — July 12, 2013 at 9:22 am

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