There was a buzz in the air on a brilliant Sunday afternoon as the young residents of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra entered the Koussevitzky Shed stage with conductor Charles Dutoit for the Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert. This year’s all-Russian affair offered Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3, and Stravinsky’s Firebird (complete).
Dutoit took the stage with firm shoulders and a confident strut. His gestures began very subtly and close to his body, conducting almost exclusively with his wrists as the whirling Scherzo came to a start. The sound seemed to excite a peaceful latent energy in the air—flags and dangling on-stage microphones undulated gently in the breeze moments after the music began.
Though less stylistically distinct than his later works (and less rhythmically and gesturally complex; it comprises mostly four bar phrases) the piece still featured Stravinsky’s unique and organic conceptions of form and development. Though the orchestral colors were also far more static than in his later works, the fast pace kept up a feeling of forward motion and anticipation.
Throughout the work, Dutoit kept the players within a light realm of tone. Though there were moments of rhythmic chaos, the music, and the orchestral sound remained playful, and never reached an extremely loud dynamic. If I could have touched the string section, it would assuredly have been soft. Despite a few more profound moments, the ensemble purveyed pure, innocent play.
After a short break to wheel out the piano, Nikolai Lugansky, the 2013 “People’s Artist of Russia,” entered to general rapture, ready to perform one of the most difficult concertos in the canon. At the piano his movements were natural and fluid if a bit reserved. Bending at the waist during the first phrases of the concerto, he telegraphed an air of control and comfort even as he clearly stepped his concentration to another level during challenging passages. By the end of the work he was convulsing with passion and fury during bold assertions of dense, rapid passages.
Lugansky and Dutoit, who tour together with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, shared the lead during this marathon. The orchestra displayed its power and versatility more fully in this piece, especially during the rapid ritornello exchanges during the final movement.
Despite the drama and sheer virtuosity, the overall narrative felt a bit taciturn for my taste; Rachmaninoff himself authorized cuts in the score at the players’ discretion. Especially as juxtaposed with Stravinsky’s organic and fluid compositions, I found the higher-level construction of the piece somewhat jolting, as sections ended and immediately raced towards new material.
Performed in its entirety, Stravinsky’s first ballet, The Firebird, ended the program. The orchestra nailed all the work’s affective and dynamic ranges: pedestrian calm to supernatural mystery; elemental chaos to lush beauty.
The Firebird was the first collaboration with the Ballet Russes and Stravinsky’s only ballet based on a subject matter that he didn’t conceive of himself. Contacted at the age of 27 while working on his opera, The Nightingale, Stravinsky jumped at the opportunity to fulfill such a commission. This composition truly put him on the map; his relationship with Diaghilev led to Petrushka and The Rite of Spring in the following years.
Though most frequently heard as extracts in orchestral suites of dances, it was a delight to hear the spacious and placid moments of transitions between dramatic peaks in this complete version. Stravinsky’s wild imagination strung together many disparate ideas into this musical narrative; the performance made each moment feel fresh and newly discovered as the work unfolded.
Dutoit as well came out of his shell a bit more, waving his arms and flurrying his fingers while calling for different textures.
The first horn Parker Nelson, first clarinet Eric Anderson, first bassoon Sean Maree, first violin Maria Semes, and first Charlotte Malinviola stood to accept applause. These players especially navigated the spotlight well, as their solo parts climbed out of the ballet’s calmer moments.
The afternoon that would certainly have made Maestro Bernstein smile.