As the Tanglewood founders were well aware, weather in the Berkshire Hills has a flair for the dramatic. Less than an hour before Friday evening’s concert, the heavens opened up and a deluge of Berkshiral proportions drenched the grounds, sending pre-concert picnickers scampering for cover. Fortunately, Mother Nature’s histrionics were relatively short-lived. By the time guest conductor Stéphane Denève raised his baton, the squall was just a soggy memory, leaving in its wake nippy, breezy conditions—perfect for an evening featuring a deluge of dramatic musical offerings from the pens (and quills) of Richard Strauss, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Francis Poulenc.
In this second of three “UnderScore Friday” concerts, principal violist Cathy Basrak aptly opted to focus her amusing pre-concert comments on the perils associated with music-making in a decidedly non-climate-controlled environment. In addition to the vagaries of tuning and the like, Basrak also touched upon the challenges of sharing the stage with summertime fauna in the form of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, myriad beetles, ‘moths the size of small bats,’ and ‘dive bombing green bugs’ that have a tendency to land on the kettledrums. All part of life at Tanglejungle!
This evening’s music-making got off to a contemplative yet passionate start with Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Death and Transfiguration,” Opus 24. Conceived and realized when the composer was only in his mid-20s, this philosophically mature work depicts the deathbed ruminations and reminiscences of the artistic protagonist, followed by his transmogrification into the heavenly realm. Decades later, on his own deathbed, one of the Strauss’s final utterances was “Death is just as I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.” In the right hands, this ethereal music has the power to transcend. Conductor Stéphane Denève guided the BSO in a lush, heartfelt, and majestic performance that was indeed transcendent. Quite intriguing watching the maestro at work: Denève’s conducting style involves very little body movement (which tends to keep his flowing golden mane in check), yet this relatively undemonstrative approach is highly effective. The orchestra was in fine form, unfurling preternaturally smooth crescendi and decrescendi as they deftly navigated the touching, nostalgic, and sweeping musical waters of this highly evocative piece.
For a span of several years, while in his mid-30s, Ludwig van Beethoven experienced a period of unsurpassed compositional fecundity. One of several large-scale works created during this musical Renaissance was his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Opus 58. Maestro Denève, the BSO, and soloist Lars Vogt combined forces to present this variegated work, with Mother Nature supplying a bit of liquid accompaniment in the first movement. Like Denève, Vogt is in his early 40s, better known in Europe though no stranger to the BSO, and slightly understated in his delivery. Both musicians refrain from any extraneous movement, thus avoiding any sort of showmanship. Vogt’s playing was precise and controlled, with a simmering passion that didn’t boil over until the final movement. Prior to letting loose in the Rondo, Vogt’s musicianship bordered on the dispassionate, with pedaling that sounded, at least to my ears located midway back in the capacious Shed, somewhat heavy. Herr Vogt more than made up for any lack of emotion in the finale, however, as he demonstrably connected with the orchestra and seemingly threw caution to the wind. This rousing finish precipitated a sustained standing-O, necessitating several curtain calls. Heartfelt appreciation from both audience and orchestra alike.
Prior to the evening’s final work, Francis Poulenc’s “Stabat Mater,” Maestro Denève regaled concertgoers with a dash of charming and illuminating introductory commentary in which he delineated the overarching theme of tonight’s concert: death. Though this thematic nexus is obvious in the first and final pieces, Beethoven’s deadly connection requires a bit of explanation. Apparently, according to various musicologists as well as his biographer, though not actually the composer himself, the second movement of his penultimate piano concerto is a depiction of the ancient Greek mythical figure Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades. Who knew?
At any rate, in this half-century anniversary year of Poulenc’s death, his Stabat Mater enjoyed its Tanglewood premiere as the evening’s final offering. Inspired by the untimely passing of Poulenc’s close friend, painter and set designer Christian Bérard, the composer chose as his text a 13th-century Latin hymn describing the suffering of the Virgin Mary following the crucifixion of her son. Tonight’s inaugural performance featured the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, as well as English soprano soloist Lucy Crowe, also making her Tanglewood debut. De rigueur for the TFC, the singers performed sans music, a custom that never fails to impress, providing them with a confident and visually arresting stage presence. Their rendition, along with the orchestra’s, was solid and spot-on. Soprano Crowe has a rich, buttery instrument, featuring a round, lyrical tone that was well-suited for the text. The music itself was also, in general at least, quite appropriate for the doleful subject matter, though, Poulenc being Poulenc, he couldn’t seem to resist interjecting a bit of incongruously upbeat themes in movements IV and VII, along with his patented piquant harmonies and sprinkles of irreverence. Critic Claude Rostand’s cutting yet apt description of Francis Poulenc: “part monk, part guttersnipe.”
Following a startlingly full-throated “Amen!,” the audience once again leapt to its feet, in appreciation of a moving, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting evening of music.
Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.