Nature, culture, adventure; ritual, reflection, remembrance. These words lie at the root of Tanglewood, the long-time summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and come together to produce, ideally, a unified aesthetic experience with beautiful music the blooming fruit. Saturday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed featured a somewhat curious pairing of Mozart’s elegant, ebullient Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, K.449, with Mahler’s world-quaking Symphony No. 5. And two Tanglewood favorites, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Emanuel Ax, highlighted the proceedings.
Ax has been a fixture as a featured soloist at Tanglewood for years, and was named an inaugural “Koussevitzky Artist” for this summer. He certainly needed no introduction to the capacity crowd, who greeted him as an old friend. (I noticed one gentleman sporting a “Maniacs for Manny Ax” tee-shirt.) Similarly, Michael Tilson Thomas, recipient of the Koussevitzky Prize in 1969, is a legacy figure here, having so many years ago led the offstage band for Leonard Bernstein’s legendary Tanglewood performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Tilson Thomas also conducts the Boston Symphony on a fairly regular basis. (see my “Prodigal Returns” here) Following in Lenny’s wake, Tilson Thomas is also one of the most passionate advocates of a robust engagement with classical music in America, his excellent Keeping Score series with the San Francisco Symphony a prime example.
Initially composed for Mozart’s student Barbara von Ployer in the spring of 1784, K.449 is typically viewed as the first of the master’s 12 “mature” piano concertos dating from 1784-86; its stately brand of exuberance allows for equal parts whimsy and classical restraint. Ax tore through the opening phrase of the Allegro vivace—one of only three first movements in all of Mozart’s piano concertos composed in triple meter—like gangbusters, then retreated toward a softer revealing of Mozart’s fertile imagination. In a performance of a concerto such as this, one pays particular attention to the integration of soloist with ensemble, and to this effect, Tilson Thomas ably directed the orchestra according to Ax’s impulses rather than dictating the flow himself; in this sense the performance was very successful.
We hear shadings of Mozart’s dark future (personally and compositionally) in this work, yet even the stormy bits are brief and cloaked in a certain warmth and sunny positivity. The piece requires a deft dynamic range predicated on sudden shifts inside a single phrase; this sort of coloration is particularly suited to Ax, an artist firmly at home in pre-Romantic exposition and expression. The second movement Andantino presents more Mozartean whimsy and abandon than anything ponderous or perhaps, profound. The finale Allegro ma non troppo, a Haydn-esque bon-bon which at times comes awfully close to a moto perpetuo, featured Ax whipping off variation upon variation, pleasantly reminding this listener of the essentially improvisatory flavor of so much of Mozart’s writing for the instrument at which he himself improvised so frequently.
Surrounded by so much greenery and open air, I began thinking of the use of space inherent to the Tanglewood experience, and how radically distant we find ourselves from the origins of music now presented as objectively solid. Modern symphonic practice encourages us to view compositions as immutable objects, eternally great and self-contained, and perhaps, interchangeable in presentation with other works composed hundreds of years apart. Yet this requires a subtle neutering of the context and the lifeblood that surrounded the music at its creation. The thousands of audience members hearing Mozart’s K.447 at Tanglewood might have been surprised to know, for instance, that one of the first performances of this work (which Mozart stated was ‘more for a small than a large orchestra’) was given in Barbara von Ployer’s own living room, a space no larger than 50 square meters. Musicologist Michael Lorenz described this room as featuring:
“a green and white room divider covered with satin, a canapé and twelve chairs, four spittoons, a small stool, a big mirror in two parts with four candlesticks on a white chest of drawers covered with a marble imitation made of gypsum plates, six card tables, a grandfather clock in a gilt case and two pairs of green and white window drapes with wooden wall panels of the same colour.”
This intimate, opulent scene hardly resembles the massive expanse and stratified seating of the Koussevitzky shed and lawn, where speakers carry an amplification of the acoustic sound far beyond its initial potential. Regardless, the audience reveled in the artistic chemistry of the performers, summoning Ax for a curtain call capped by two old friends embracing. The pomp and circumstance of classical music’s time-honored rituals seem particularly on display at Tanglewood, where the demographic skews noticeably older than at Symphony Hall.
The Mahler, superficially a better fit for these physical dimensions, opened with principal Thomas Rolfs’ declaration of the famous trumpet fanfare. Indeed, the first movement Trauermarsch of this mammoth symphony might best viewed as a trumpet concerto with orchestral accompaniment. Rolfs’s playing was equal parts assertive and vulnerable, with full presence of sound and surefire articulation, yet perhaps in part due to his exposed position on a riser upstage left, I felt it often overwhelmed the textures of Tilson Thomas’s rather restrained reading. (I also found the resplendent, ripping torrents of sound of the entire brass section, impressive as they were, generally out of proportion to the surrounding context throughout the piece.) Overall, this movement seemed to take a little while to mesh.
Rather neutral in disposition, Tilson Thomas’s oddly muted interpretation allowed this listener to discover subtle, hidden corners of Mahler’s scoring: for example, one passage featuring slow celli in unison, another with lugubrious, woodsy bass clarinet. Yet the reading felt overly skewed toward the dispassionate, and climaxes that should feel heart wrenching often came off as perfunctory. (The most gripping version of this work I’ve ever heard live was Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Schleswig-Holstein student orchestra in Prague; perhaps there’s something about Mahler 5 that lends itself to the passion and focus of young musicians?) Because the pacing seemed to lack urgency, we didn’t get a consistent contrast heading into the legato, lyrical sections, compelling as they were on their own. For this listener, the magic of Mahler is contained not only in the exquisite orchestration and nuance, but also in the extremes between breathless, uncontrolled passion and ecstatic stillness, and without enough the former, the latter feels unearned. I wanted more of the heroic, reckless Mahler to make the internal torque sound organic and self-directed.
Still, there’s nothing like the experience of hearing this work live; I once compared it to “getting caught in a lightning storm while on a roller coaster.” And part of the fun of this particular performance was observing the degree to which Tilson Thomas, conducting without a score, knows every crevice of it, and how much joy he brings to his work.
After a brief pause for water and hankie—the late-July heat imposing itself upon everyone—Tilson Thomas’s beginning of the wistful, nostalgic Viennese waltz of the third movement Scherzo planted the subtle narrative character of the symphony on firmer ground. Principal horn James Sommerville offered particularly devastating and consistent solo work, his massive, bright tone round and full even as it dropped to pianissimo. Tilson Thomas seemed to play with and stretch time, at times halting the action and extending silences a second beyond expectations.
The famous Adagietto provided the emotional fulcrum of the evening. Splaying his arms high above him, Tilson Thomas resembled a bird taking flight. I thought again about the deliberate suspension of time this movement allows, and how the conductor’s patient phrasing enlisted the audience as full partners in what felt like a communal prayer.
Yet, amidst ever-present technology, processed sounds, musico-cultural diversity, and the rather disturbing (if sadly necessary) marriage of culture and rank corporatism fully on display at Tanglewood, I wondered, how do we receive this music now, over 100 years after its composition? This is a question that would have fascinated Mahler, who oft times seemed as obsessed with the future (and his legacy) as he was with the past. (“My time will come when his is up,” he famously said about Richard Strauss.)
Here’s one answer: the experience of hearing Mahler’s emotionally cathartic music played live by exceedingly well-trained musicians, surrounded by thousands of other silent near-penitents, allows us not only to connect to an earlier, thrilling sonic world that remains fresh today, but more importantly, affords an exceedingly rare opportunity to share a communal desire to experience beauty amidst chaos. In times of unending great strife and sorrow like our own, this more than anything explains why modern audiences are drawn to and understand his music in a manner audiences of his own time were not able to. The world, in a sense, has caught up to Mahler’s dark yet somehow hopeful premonitions.
A horn call suddenly pierced the exquisite silence, and the Rondo-Finale continued with much playful banter between the first and second violins, seated on opposite sides of the podium. The orchestra seemed to play with more abandon as the work bore on, delighting in Mahler’s smorgasbord of sonic effects and delicious orchestration, and after the final few rousing minutes the audience leapt to its feet in appreciation. For me, this was not a definitive performance of Mahler 5, but I can’t think of too many other ways I’d rather spend my time than in the ecstatic presence of his company.