Last spring’s riveting performances of Salome were worthy avatars of Saturday’s elegant essay at Tanglewood of Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier music, performed with panache and remarkable flexibility by this year’s edition of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Evident from the opening notes of the composer’s Suite was a burnished gleam of sound, quicksilver timbres, turn-on-a-dime dynamic expression, and a maturity of musical understanding that one once would have thought miraculous in the notoriously short span of time allotted to ensemble rehearsal for the TMC orchestra, given its players’ many other musical obligations. The overall facility of these gifted instrumentalists upon arrival in the Berkshires coupled with Andris Nelson’s now obvious gift for opera performance almost guaranteed the outstanding results.
I say almost, because no matter what the depth of talent of the players, it takes a special kind of musicianship to offer up such a fully realized and stylistically convincing exposition of one of the most complex scores in the romantic opera repertoire.
It was a pleasure to watch Nelsons at the helm of these young musicians as they sailed through and glided over these challenging Straussian waters. At no point was he unclear, yet at no point did he seem to need to offer anything but a leadership that sculpted Strauss’s sinuous musical lines rather than more pedantically focused on cueing entrances and releases. Dynamics at the soft end of the scale were amazingly and subtly terraced, from a point of almost inaudibility to a gently caressed mezzo-piano/mezzo-forte midpoint. First trumpet Mark Grisez was especially bronzen in tone with his solos. Only occasionally, and with a correspondent impact, was a mighty fortissimo requested and received.
Nelsons seems a born opera conductor, as was his predecessor— both also thankfully considerate of singers. At no point did the huge orchestra in the Final Scene of Der Rosenkavalier overwhelm any of the three soloists. Sophie Bevan was bright and youthful looking and sounding in her namesake role, Angela Denoke brought requisite elegance and maturity to her singing of the Marschallin, and Isabel Leonard sang an ardent and strongly characterful Octavian. All three, and the orchestra as well, were attendant to Andris Nelsons’ liberal lashings of rubato that only occasionally seemed a bit too interventionist.
After intermission, the BSO took the stage to offer two strong and colorful scores. A different conductor had presented the first only a few months ago – Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a brilliantly scored and immensely colorful work that the composer described as “…my last spark.” And indeed, it was to prove his very last score. Nelsons brought his now familiar attention to detail to this music, revealing inner workings and instrumental voicings often missed in other less thoughtful performances. This elegance of approach happily brought a more nuanced reading of this music than one often encounters, and made the climactic moments sprinkled throughout all that more powerful and memorable. The plethora of wonderfully played solos included most tellingly of the sensitive and richly hued saxophone solo of Adam Pelandini.
A chance encounter with John Harbison at intermission brought forth an as usual thoughtful observation from him. When I confessed a “guilty pleasure” affection for the Rachmaninoff, he replied that he too admired the color of the orchestration, but more tellingly he observed that the date of its first performance—1941—was the same year as that of Olivier Messiaen’s transcendent Quartet for the End of Time, composed while that composer was incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp in Görlitz, Germany. Harbison had been moved by how differing circumstances can affect a composer’s music. Indeed.
Following the Rachmaninoff the orchestra offered the bracing Bolero of Ravel. This ingenious score toys with the concept of crescendo and the interlacing of instrumental timbres within a beguiling and hypnotic ostinato. While this music may have become something of a “chestnut” which would-be connoisseurs often snoot, I still find it fascinating and wonderful to hear an orchestra’s first-desk players stretched by their demanding solos. Again, those solos were plentiful, each artfully presented. Toby Oft’s gently swinging trombone solo was faultless as he tripped along its precariously elevated tessitura, Adam Pelandini once again brought tonal richness and pinpoint tuning to his equally dangerous saxophone solos, and Dan Bauch was the fearless snare drum player—gradually joined by fellow percussion section members Kyle Brightwell, William Hudgins and Matthew McKay—who persevered with rock-solid rhythm and growing force from beginning to end. Nelsons offered further proof of his gift for bringing freshness and vitality to his music-making, waiting for Bolero’s very last note to unleash the loudest chord of the evening, a sound in its explosive impact that set up the ensuing fireworks display over Stockbridge Bowl. Apparently these were originally intended for July 4th festivities, but were shelved at the last minute that evening due to heavy rainfall. Their brilliant display of color and percussive impact proved a fully appropriate coda for the evening—a gala indeed.