What is so rare as a day in … July, when a ”family fun fest” brings large numbers of enthusiastic children to an expansive lawn, where they (and their parents) can discover the beautiful sights and sounds of the place, and where the afternoon promises a BSO concert of music by Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, with a world premiere by John Williams, conducted by music director Andris Nelsons and featuring one of the world’s most popular violinists, Anne-Sophie Mutter. All of these features arrived at the same time to create what might well be regarded as the “perfect Tanglewood day.”
Anne-Sophie Mutter, much honored both for her performances of the standard repertoire, but for her commitment to new music and encouragement in the creation of new works, has long asked for a concerto from John Williams. On this occasion, she gave the first performance of a single-movement piece entitled Markings, for solo violin, string orchestra, and harp. Running about 11 minutes in a single movement, it is not a full concerto. Or not yet. (Mutter expressed the hope that Williams would someday expand the work to add more movements and bring it to full concerto length—though in a radio interview before the performance, she expressed her great delight with the lyrical nature and especially with the subtleties of the orchestral treatment that balance perfectly with the solo part that she had for this occasion.)
Markings begins and ends in silence, an introspective mood that is central to the character of the whole score, employing a series of basic violin figures—arpeggios across the strings, a yearning theme that grows more and more energetic, until it becomes a more outgoing and syncopated, filled with moods of the dance (with the soloist seconded by the harp), rapid scales, an unaccompanied cadenza (written out, not improvised), returning to the lyrical mood and material of the opening, and passing into silence as the solo violin soars aloft into the sun.
Next Mutter played one of the most popular of 19th-century violin concertos—Tchaikovsky’s. Here again, as in the Williams, the close feeling of collaboration with conductor Andris Nelsons made an excellent match, as both expressed similar ideas for shaping the give and take of the melodic flow, the avoidance of rhythmically square beat-counting. The first four notes in the orchestral opening (for strings in unison) offered miniature moments of hesitation and onward flow, the sort of response that enlivened every section of the concerto, but especially the more lyrical passages in which soloist and orchestra alternated or combined, always bringing forth the same expressive character. The sweetness of her playing was sweet at all levels from the open G-string to the stratosphere. I couldn’t help thinking that if Edward Hanslick (who wrote a notorious review of the work in Vienna) had heard the Tanglewood performance first, he could never have declared that the violin was “tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue.” At the same time, the virtuoso passages were incredibly thrilling, especially in passages where soloist and orchestra counter one another with strong beats on different parts of the bar.
The slow movement—Tchaikovsky’s second thought for this concerto—offered just the right degree of rural color and gentle summery sonority to enhance the Berkshire day, and Mutter’s easy control of the soft dynamics combined with her rhythmic flexibility, kept the entire movement alive even at its slow tempo.
The finale expresses Tchaikovsky’s Russian roots so directly that it offended Hanslick, who implied that he could smell the “stink” of boozy peasants. But Mutter, Nelsons, and the BSO generated a massive level of excitement from the moment that the first inkling of the coming folk dance burst out of the end of the serene song of the Andante. In this brilliant finale, Anne-Sophie Mutter gave no quarter. She raced and drove the music at lickety-split tempo with magnificent clarity despite the speed, and the orchestra was entirely in train with her.
At the end of the Tchaikovsky, the instant enthusiasm of the audience set up a storm of cheers that naturally demanded an encore. At such a time, most soloists offer a movement of a Bach suite or a similar passage of challenging solo work. In this case, Mutter and Nelsons clearly decided to provide a “sandwich” for the first half of the concert with a piece by John Williams on either side of the Tchaikovsky. The chosen work—partly, no doubt, because of its great contrast to the finale of the Tchaikovsky, but also, surely (given the deeply expressive and beautiful performance), because of the soloist’s clear fondness for the score, was the Theme from Schindler’s List. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s flexible playing of the opening motif of descending fifths (a figure heard often in the piece) was so hypnotically expressive that it raised the ache inherent in this music to an extraordinary level.
The second half was devoted to one—very substantial—piece: Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, the work that first put him on the map in his own day and the one still heard most often today, if only to show off an orchestra’s sonorous range and brilliance. On this occasion, coming only a few hours after a splendid performance of a full Wagnerian opera, Andris Nelsons played the inherent program of the symphony for all it is worth, whether it was printed in the program (it was not, according with Berlioz’s final feelings on this point) or not. One need not know the “story” to recognize strong contrasts of mood and personality in the work—the slowly growing consciousness of the assumed principal figure into a specific melody that will return throughout; the fashionable (one must assume) ball with its brilliant waltz decorated by jewels of sound from the harp; the summer heat of a tranquil day in the country, turning at the end to a tense portent of disaster to come (Robert Sheena’s solo English horn—seeking, amid silence, for an oboe comrade that appeared to have deserted him—was exceptionally gripping); the March to the Scaffold (saved by Berlioz from an earlier operatic score and made to fit into this symphony by the simple expedient of inserting a single unaccompanied reference to the idée fixe moments before the blow that suggests a falling guillotine and a head rolling away) had all its impled dramatic force; and, finally, the Witches’ Sabbath, combining the “passing bells” of old French towns announcing a death, the Dies irae melody from the Requiem Mass, the idée fixe turned into a vulgar street song or dance, and the and fugal theme of the event itself—all combined into diabolical stew—without pictures and without words, Berlioz created one of the most impressive and dramatic works of the early Romantic era. On Sunday, the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons gave us the full measure of its color and excitement.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.