in: Reviews

July 30, 2017

Dutoit Delivers Thrills

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Charles Dutoit and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. (Hilary Scott photo)

Saturday night’s concert of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Berlioz capped a thrilling week’s Tanglewood residency for Charles Dutoit, regular guest conductor, coach, and teacher at the summer music festival since his own student days at Tanglewood in 1959.

The first BSO and the first Tanglewood performance of Stravinsky’s Chant funèbre opened the evening. Composed in 1908 to honor the memory of his mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and played only once during the composer’s lifetime, this piece is also billed by its Russian title (Pogrebal’naya pesnya, op. 5). Maestro Dutoit told program annotator Robert Kirzinger that he prefers the French title, reflecting “the composer’s later long association with France and Switzerland.” The original parts survived the Russian Revolution in the basement of the St. Petersburg Conservatory’s annex at 3 Theatre Street, and have been edited by musicologist Natalia Braginskaya, who made the discovery in 2015. After Braginskaya led the work’s second performance in 2016, Charles Dutoit gave the American premiere with the Chicago Symphony this April. The full resources of the BSO were required to realize this haunting, unique performance, remarkable for its well-balanced Straussian brass choirs and almost indistinguishable pianissimo effects. Gentle solo woodwind lines, a beautiful opening horn solo, and a deep background of low string tremolo (described by Stravinsky as “all the soloists of the orchestra [filing] past the tomb of the master”) lulled the Shed and Lawn audiences into a dreamlike state.

Those listeners would revive quickly for Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s second appearance of the day. He had been up early Friday and Saturday for recitals of Messiaen’s birdsong-inspired piano music with TMC Piano Fellows, followed by a MassAudubon-led guided bird walk. Click here and here to listen to Aimard discussing Ravel and Boulez.

Commissioned by Austrian virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in WWI, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D Major for the left hand combines the lush, romantic sound Dutoit is known for coaxing out of orchestras with a crisp, jazz-inspired lightness and transparency. Wittgenstein played the 1932 world premiere in Vienna, introduced it to European audiences in 1933, and traveled to Boston to play the American premiere with the BSO in 1934. Written in two parts without pause, its Lento section began with the most expressive contrabassoon solo I’ve ever heard, played by Gregg Henegar. The second section constitutes something of an encyclopedic exploration of Ravel’s genius for contrasting orchestral color and national style. Strictly precise percussive passages evoking his Spanish-flavored Bolero crash up against solo piano writing and woodwind harmonies that could have been taken from a missing page of his beautiful Gaspard de la nuit or Debussy’s Clair de lune from his Suite bergamasque. Dutoit brought out the rosy, warm timbre of the work’s quieter moments that perfectly matched the night sky, and the piano, dueling with virtuosic clarinets, emerged as the dominant force of the finale just as the sunset illuminated the Berkshire hills. Viva Ravel!

Aimard rewarded his loud, appreciative audience with an unusual encore: four excerpts from Pierre Boulez’ Douze Notations, composed in 1945. Luckily for this reviewer, BUTI student Noah Shafner was in the audience and recognized the movements played (1, 4, 5, and 2). Aimard’s enigmatic, nuanced take on the work’s complex rhythms and delicate, rubato-filled presentation of the unsupported melodic lines at the encore’s heart drew a second standing ovation from the crowd. Click here for his unabridged recording of Douze Notations (with musical score). Viva Boulez!

Tenor Paul Groves emotes (Hilary Scott photo)

During the second half of the concert, the temperature plunged more than ten degrees: at least two BSO string players wore fingerless gloves; those stalwart audience members who soldiered-on for the full 50 minutes (some wearing their picnic blankets by the end) were rewarded with the blazing genius of Berlioz’s Te Deum laudamus for three choirs. The two mixed choirs (sung by the divided Tanglewood Festival Chorus), dominated the work. Female members of the excellent Choral Arts Society of Washington Youth Choir constituted most of the choir of “Soprani e Contralti Enfants” [from Berlioz’ score]; their rich tone was here supplemented by a few additional excellent high school and college girls from the Washington area. While significantly older than the BSO’s more typical partners in the American Boychoir, their sound made an ideal match for the ladies of the TFC, supporting complex textures and providing a foundation of pure, clean tone in the outer movements.

Berlioz’s monumental canticle, a combination of patriotic anthem and ultimate choral anthem-you-wish-you’d had at your wedding, was notable for its vocal shading and James David Christie’s huge contribution as organist. Standing on level with the composer’s Requiem, the multi-movement masterwork opens with competing block chords from the BSO and the organ: The organ won. A listener next to me happily murmured, “More cowbell,” after catching his breath at the power of the organ’s first entrance.

Most choruses don’t attempt this work due to its bombast and non-stop demands (esp. the exhausting, but thrilling final Judex crederis movement), and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus has been doing double duty all week preparing for both this and Sunday’s even more demanding Belshazzar’s Feast of Walton. Contrasting a heavier, darker sound (at “omnis terra”) with a lighter, cleaner sound in the very next phrase of text (“veneratur”), and using heavy, emotional accents for dramatic effect (at the first occurrence of “dignare Domine” with the expressive detail called for by Berlioz), they retreated into mellifluous, balanced changes of color for most cadences. Enunciation was always clear (although the supertitles now regularly in use by some American symphony choruses would be a big bonus). We heard most pleasingly rolled Rs and notable attention to full, supported singing, esp. in the long, lyrical counterpoint that opens the canticle.

This summer marks the beginning of James Burton’s new directorship of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. A Tanglewood tip: Chorus warmups, held in the Chamber Music Hall roughly an hour before curtain time, are always open. I heard the second half of their afternoon rehearsal of the Walton oratorio under Bramwell Tovey just a few hours before the call for this concert: they are in excellent voice, crushing the orchestral sound when thrillingly appropriate (N.B.: this reviewer is a chorister first, and instrumentalist second).

Like TFC Founding Director John Oliver before him, Burton is a Grammy-winning specialist in vocal technique, but with the added bonuses of a childhood spent in the boychoir at Westminster Abbey and an M.Mus. in orchestral conducting from the renowned Peabody Conservatory. As with any new choral director, the culture and expectations of a chorus will evolve. Over the last two years (during the search for a new Chorus Director), the TFC has shifted from mostly-memorized programs to a mix of memorized warhorses and reading from scores in more obscure pieces. In Saturday’s warmup, Mr. Burton mixed wry wit with gentle direction: “That’s what your score is for, look at it,” and “What’s your pencil doing right now?” In response to a chorister question (“James, he seemed like he wanted more from us there”), an ironic “Well, sing louder then!” was followed by work on rhythmic precision, choral balance, breath support, and intonation. He will featured as a conductor in the August 25th Friday evening (6-7pm) Prelude Concert in Ozawa Hall in works including Jonathan Dove’s moving choral elegy The Passing of the Year.

Tenor Paul Groves, Dutoit’s go-to tenor for this type of work, combines dramatic power, beauty of tone, and a robust technique; his quick decrescndi on high sustained notes is to die for. Groves’s pathos-filled Te ergo quaesumus, supported by the adult women’s voices, stood as the dramatic highlight of a consistently powerful reading. Click here to hear Groves’ thoughts on auditions, the responsibilities of being a cover for a role, and his early career at the Met. He and Dutoit will return to Symphony Hall in late October for a much-anticipated rendering of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust.

Dutoit leads BSO, Paul Groves and combined choruses. (Hilary Scott photo)

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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