Under newly minted Music Director Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and four illustrious soloists (including three singers making their BSO debuts) magnificently carried off a program of majestic proportions November 20-22 (this reviewer heard the final performance). Three of its four works utilized the Chorus, one of which had its world premiere performances: Ēriks Ešenvalds’s “Lakes Awake at Dawn.”
“ ‘Koussevitzky Said:,’ Choral Scherzo with Orchestra,” by John Harbison (b. 1938), was premiered by the BSO and TFC in 2012 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center. It was Serge Koussevitzky, the BSO’s legendary ninth Music Director, who established the TMC (originally named Berkshire Music Center); he also greatly enriched the orchestral repertoire with over 140 world premieres during his 25-year tenure, putting special emphasis on American composers. Harbison’s text is culled from quotes of “Koussy,” some affectionately recalling the Russian émigré’s colorful English usage. In the first of three sections, the conductor declares his confidence in America’s native compositional talent—“The next Beethoven will from Colorado come”—while Harbison puts the chorus through its polyphonic paces. Also, one pronouncement alluded obliquely to the dictatorial powers Koussevitzky enjoyed as “chief conductor”: “I will keep playing this music—until you hear it,” addressing the conservative audience (sometimes privately referred to cantankerously as “idiot publicum”). The third section had most of the humor: e.g., Koussevitzky’s insistence on flawless intonation led to four separate statements beginning “If not in tune . . .” (my favorite being “. . . it smells of office, price five cents”). Near the end, “Let’s do it together for our own satisfaction” was vividly enacted by chorus and orchestra, beginning in conflict but working through to resolution—an all too useful parable for our times.
For the text of the diptych “Lakes Awake at Dawn,” Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) used one stanza by his compatriot Inga Ābele (excerpted for this work by the poet herself) and another by himself. It begins, “Like ants lost on my skin the two coldest hours, when sleep vanishing in listening as the skies slowly pale.” Though alluding to formication, doubt, and barrenness in the coldest, darkest hours before daybreak, the first section’s dramatic music still managed often to be rich in texture and beautiful in sound. The chorus integrated exceptionally closely with the instruments, virtually becoming another orchestral color; especially striking were the downward glissandi shared by strings and (unusually) voices. In stanza 2, daybreak arrives, dissipating the earlier unrest and anxiety, and Ešenvalds created a lush, cinematic depiction of “The waters sing to the dewy morn . . . the naked sky silvers the water . . . I stretch my empty arms towards the light.” Both chorus and orchestra gave us a lingering and luscious descent to the final pianissimo cadence. Alas, as happens all too often, the eager beavers in the audience didn’t let the rest of us savor the enchantment for more than two seconds.
The rest of the program comprised two symphonies of atypical cast: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra”, Op. 125 and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells”, Op. 35, a choral symphony with solo singers. Yo-Yo Ma was the incandescent soloist in the former, demonstrating jaw-dropping virtuosity and beguiling humanity alike. Nelsons was no less committed on the podium, employing an amazing (and amazingly effective) variety of gestures, postures, facial expressions, etc. The orchestra, particularly in the central movement of three, gets plenty of opportunities to show its mojo. From furiously energetic early on, it becomes seductive later, and ultimately unearthly. In the final movement, there were interesting contrasts of dynamics: long-sustained crescendi/diminuendi versus short truculent crescendi that broke off abruptly. At the conclusion, just as the work seemed to be “running down,” a wild coda broke in with cello pyrotechnics and finished defiantly. Well into the well-deserved standing ovation, Ma was determined to take no more glory than Nelsons and the orchestra, and sat down in an orchestra seat; equally self-effacing, Nelsons responded by sitting on the stage. So much for starchy performance etiquette!
Though Rachmaninoff declared “The Bells” to be his favorite among his compositions, it is rather less familiar to audiences than many others; this was only the second-ever performance of it by the BSO. According to the composer, “All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian . . .” His text, however, is not of Russian origin but a free translation by Konstantin Balmont of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name. The four movements portray the silver bells celebrating spring’s rebirth; the golden bells of romantic love and marriage; the howling bells of a fire alarm; and the iron bells of a funeral knell. The first movement was largely a joyful scherzo with plenty of tintinnabulary effects supplied by various percussion instruments including triangle, glockenspiel, and celesta, as well as instrumental ostinati evoking change-ringing. Pavel Černoch, hailing from the Czech Republic, was the brilliant-voiced tenor soloist, especially beguiling when in dialogue with the chorus. The second movement, though speaking of love and marriage, begins surprisingly somberly but features the most resplendent orchestral textures (especially in the strings) of the whole symphony. The Russian soprano, Victoria Yastrebova, had superb control of a wide array of vocal colors: in climaxes her voice became forward and penetrating but never metallic, but in more intimate passages it was warm and sensual (“gazing at the moon” was a moment to treasure). The chorus’s final descrescendo was exquisite and the orchestral coda enchanting. The third movement tells the story of fire alarm bells that howl, groan, shriek, wail, etc. in an echt Poe tale of dismay and horror. This danse infernale was the only purely choral movement, and the TFC and orchestra made the terror palpable. At the climax, the personified blaze, out of control, declares, “I want to soar higher, and aflame meet the beams of moonlight,” a contorted version of Ešenvalds’s “I stretch my empty arms towards the light.” The succeeding and final movement, logically enough, summons listeners to a funeral but also takes the opportunity more generally to contemplate mortality. The Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas had a major impact here with his darkly handsome, powerful sound and highly expressive interpretation. After he and the chorus signed off, there was a gentle and beautiful orchestral coda in the major, again paralleling the progression of “Lakes Awake at Dawn.”
Given the unusually choral orientation of the program, I feel it’s only fair to highlight the superb work of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver’s preparation: the chorus sang three demanding pieces from memory—the last, by far the most text-heavy, in Russian. In addition to giving a world premiere, they added immeasurably to this celebration of three Sergeis—Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Koussevitzky.