in: Reviews

July 25, 2017

Adès and Ax Excel

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Saturday night’s Jenkins Family Concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed starred Thomas Adès conducting his own new work and pianist Emanuel Ax in Beethoven’s powerful Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73. This annual event at Tanglewood honors BSO Lifetime Trustee Charles H. Jenkins (since 2013) and his wife, Dorothy Jenkins. The Dorothy and Charles Jenkins Fellowship also underwrites costs for one of the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows (graduate and post-graduate music students) each summer. The couple began to attend free Thursday night open rehearsals of the BSO while studying at Wellesley and Harvard, and they have supported galas, the TMC Opera Training Program, and the Annual Fund for many years.

The BSO began with an early Benjamin Britten, his fiery, Stravinskyan Sinfonia da Requiem, op. 20. Adès’s energetic conducting recalled a young Seiji Ozawa, as he drew long lines from the strings and highlighted Britten’s powerful massed brass writing. When he conducted the same work at the BBC Proms in 2003, Adès spoke at length about the Britten’s pacifist and musical goals for the 1940 work [see video here].

The composer calls for an alto saxophonist. Although I couldn’t find the player listed in the program, it turns out to have been the excellent Adam Pelandini. His haunting sound, combined with excellent solo work from the woodwinds, created a highly personal and elegiac quality appropriate for a work memorializing the composer’s parents. This is one of Britten’s American works, written and premiered in New York City (at Carnegie Hall in March 1941), and played shortly thereafter by Serge Koussevitzky with the BSO. The BSO performance was an important event in itself (imagine hearing this work, originally intended for Japan, less than a month after Pearl Harbor), and it also led directly to the commissioning by Koussevitzky of what would become Britten’s most influential and beloved opera, Peter Grimes.

The composer’s own analysis of his Sinfonia da requiem follows:

‘Lacrymosa.’ A slow marching lament in a persistent 6/8 rhythm with a strong tonal center on D. There are three main motives: 1) a syncopated, sequential theme announced by the cellos and answered by a solo bassoon; 2) a broad theme, based on the interval of a major seventh; 3) alternating chords on flute and trombones, outlined by piano, harps and trombones. The first section of the movement is quietly pulsating; the second is a long crescendo leading to a climax based on the first cello theme. There is no pause before:

‘Die irae.’ A form of Dance of Death, with occasional moments of quiet marching rhythm. The dominating motif of this movement is announced at the start by the flutes and includes an important tremolando figure. Other motives are a triplet repeated-note figure in the trumpets, a slow, smooth tune on the saxophone, and a livelier syncopated one in the brass. The scheme of the movement is a series of climaxes of which the last is the most powerful, causing the music to disintegrate and to lead directly to:

‘Requiem aeternam.’ Very quietly, over a background of solo strings and harps, the flutes announce the quiet D-major tune, the principal motive of the movement. There is a middle section in which the strings play a flowing melody. This grows to a short climax, but the opening tune is soon resumed, and the work ends quietly in a long sustained clarinet note.

Britten’s spectacular elegy was followed by the first BSO performance of “…but all shall be well,” op. 10, composed in 1993 by Thomas Adès. This also featured a beautiful vibrato-laden alto saxophone solo from Pelandini, opening with crystalline percussion effects (cascading arpeggios of bells supporting gentle choirs of high woodwinds), and a 4-6-note rising chromatic motive that shaped the whole ten-minute movement. The work is full of Doppler effects for chamber ensembles within the wind section, and requires virtuosic precision from the percussion section (everything from maracas to ratchets complement the more standard full ensemble of instruments). Oliver Knussen’s early advocacy of this particular piece (the composer’s first for full symphony orchestra) helped to establish the young Adès as an internationally respected composer. A recent (but more restrained) recording of the work, with Adès leading the City of Birmingham Symphony, may be heard here:

Thomas Adès conducts BSO and pianist Emanuel Ax (Hilary Scott photo)

After what seemed like a very short intermission, the audience settled back in for a powerful, robust rendering of Beethoven’s last piano concert, subtitled “Emperor” in English-speaking countries (against the composer’s wishes). Ax’s light touch recalled his recent playing of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto: both begin with a lengthy solo for piano and achieve an uplifting overall effect, in spite of the composer’s encroaching deafness. Ax played with great naturalness and clarity. His ability to make melodies sing, limiting himself to judicious touches of rubato, is electrifying. Adès’ conducting had terrific heart, emphasizing piano and pianissimo moments to bring out the work’s dreamlike qualities — perfect for a summer night on the lawn. One caveat though: since the concert began well before dark, the wonderful screens on the outside of the Shed (for the benefit of the audience on the lawn), were not visible until just before intermission, washed out by the glow of a pleasant sunset. Ax treated Beethoven’s bravura finale with grace and charm, with just a touch of militaristic bounce.

This summer in Seiji Ozawa Hall, Ax is curating and performing in a six-concert series devoted to Schubert and contemporary composers. Thomas Adès was featured as a pianist on the most recent of these installments [see my review for Thursday’s concert here], and he will return as a conductor, pianist, director of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (for both 2018 and 2019), and featured composer throughout the next two seasons, as Deborah and Philip Edmundson Artistic Partner.

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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