in: Reviews

August 5, 2015

Three Conductors and As Many Orchestras Celebrate

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Fanfares and fireworks framed Tuesday night’s “Tanglewood on Parade” evening concert, one of the highlights of the summer season in the Berkshires. The broad, sloping lawn in front of the Shed was filled with picnickers and families by seven o’clock in spite of thunderstorms and hail throughout the state during the day.

Although the Boston Symphony gave its first concerts in the Berkshires in August 1937, a central element of the Boston Symphony’s presence in Lenox, MA is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year: the Tanglewood Music Center. Originally called the Berkshire Music Center, this summer music academy was founded by Serge Koussevitsky and has been led by Charles Munch (with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein), Erich Leinsdorf, Gunther Schuller, Leon Fleischer, and Ellen Highstein.

“Tanglewood on Parade,” a very full evening, begins with fanfares (mostly for brass, this year featuring Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man), and showcases three full orchestras. The main program comprised four selections from the Boston Symphony, the Fellows of the TMC Orchestra under frequent guest conductor Stéphane Denève playing three non-film-score contributions from John Williams (the composer was absent from the podium during his recovery from a back ailment), and the Boston Pops, conducted (mainly) by Keith Lockhart. All three ensembles were also conducted by Andris Nelsons (whose contract with the BSO has just been extended until 2022: reported here).

Nelsons’s opening salvo, Berlioz’ Carnival Overture, began at a blistering tempo before dissolving into well-shaped, gentle dances. Among the most difficult Romantic overtures in the orchestral repertoire, this work was written for a virtuoso conductor (Berlioz himself), and can both drag and rush, due to its endless transitions of tempo and style. Nelsons masterfully elucidated the many off-beat entrances and pickups, navigating the (mostly) 6/8 meter with a variety of patterns and accents. He conducted much more during the transitions than in the fortissimo sections, allowing the BSO a freedom and flexibility that led to an exciting concert opener.

The two quieter selections that followed were less successful due to balance issues. Ravel’s orchestration of his earlier Pavane pour une infante défunte (originally for piano) and Shostakovich’s Romance from the 1955 film The Gadfly, focused on the strings, and channeled the waltz-like Gymnopédies of Satie and the Adagio dance-movements of Tchaikovsky. The Ravel featured a lustrous solo by Principal Horn James Sommerville, soaring over a too-hushed accompanying background; the ensemble sound gradually developed into a healthy, vibrant chorale of woodwinds and strings, led by Principal Oboe John Ferrillo. Nelsons slightly prolonged the downbeats of Shostakovich’s Romance, creating a pleasing waltz-like quality, even though the work is in 4/4 rather than 3/4.

The BSO set concluded with Shostakovich’s brilliant Galop, celebrating the BSO’s new set of planned Shostakovich recordings for Deutsche Grammaphon under Nelsons [here]. The first of those five discs is already on sale in both “glass houses” at Tanglewood: it features the Passacaglia from Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and the tenth symphony, recently recorded at Symphony Hall and repeated at Tanglewood last weekend. The Galop is the most challenging movement from the Russian operetta Chernyomushki, named after a southwestern suburb of Moscow. The title has since become a common term for cheap subsidized housing in general, and the music is full of satirical references to Soviet life and popular music of the early 1950s. A muscular (klezmer?) clarinet solo, featuring Principal Clarinet William Hudgins, made the second thematic section the highlight of this performance, with Nelsons encouraging but controlling the many brass fanfare interjections while navigating the complex scherzo texture with nuance.

Denève led the TMC Fellows in three lesser-known selections by former Boston Pops conductor John Williams, which formed a concerto-like structure. Beginning with the minimalistic Japanese commission Sound the Bells!, described by Denève as “brilliant and festive,” the orchestra plunged through a series of modulations and contrasts familiar to fans of Williams’ virtuosic score for the film Home Alone. The most dissonant work of the evening followed: a gently rocking central movement from Williams’ Violin Concerto in Memory of B. R. W. (composed 1974-76 and revised for the BSO in 1998) featuring the expressive playing of Boston Pops Concertmistress Tamara Smirnova. This work is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s wife Barabara Ruick (1930-1974), who had starred in several MGM musicals and had passed away at the age of 43 while on location for her last film, Robert Altman’s California Split. The concerto’s languorous, twisted melodies, described by Denève as “singing to the stars” (in the voices of Smirnova’s violin and Elizabeth Rowe’ flute), foreshadow the simpler delights of Williams’ film score for Schindler’s List.

The first half concluded with an almost-premiere of a flashy work written this year specifically for the TMC. Just Down West Street … on the left, is a gift from the composer, called by Denève “a “triple espresso [coffee] symbolizing the exuberance and youth of the great, talented musicians” who had premiered the work in July at Tanglewood. The title refers to the location of the festival, and the work has a great future ahead of it as either an overture-style curtain-raiser with plenty of contrast and variation, or as a demanding (but cheerful) five-minute encore-showpiece for orchestra.

Keith Lockhart opened the second half of the event by leading the Boston Pops in Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Overture to Colas Breugnon and four orchestral arrangements (without vocalist) of selections made famous by Frank Sinatra. The orchestra’s virtuosity, now a hallmark of the Boston arts scene, was featured in Kabalevsky’s syncopated showpiece from the 1930s. This score was composed during the composer’s tenure at the Moscow Conservatory, and shows off the constantly-changing dynamic shifts and driving rhythms typical of his silent film scores and operatic works. The most moving and elegant solo of the evening was the lead trumpet melody for “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by BSO Assistant Principal Trumpet Thomas Siders: his subtle sense of style channeled Sinatra’s vocal elegance, providing a fitting tribute to “Ol’ Blue Eyes” at 100.

Copland, Bernstein, and Koussetitzky

Copland, Bernstein, and Koussevitzky

After Andris Nelsons returned to the podium to make his Boston Pops Debut (with a moody, Wagnerian interpretation of Throne Room and Finale from John Williams’ score for Star Wars), the concert began its third hour, with a quick transition back to the combined BSO and TMC Fellows, now led by Nelsons in the event’s traditional “closer:” Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with pyro-technics in place of cannons. The Pops has been concluding festive concerts with this work since July 4, 1974, under conductor Arthur Fiedler.

The full day’s “Tanglewood on Parade” events [here] concluded with a fireworks display near the edge of the Stockbridge Bowl. As the celebratory explosions mingled with the stars over the Lion Gate, W. H. Auden’s A Summer Night [here] featured in Benjamin Britten’s (BSO-commissioned) Spring Symphony came to mind:

Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead…

That later we, though parted then,
May still recall those evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

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