in: Reviews

August 28, 2017

Taking Stock: Last Weekend at Tanglewood

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Yesterday’s performance at Tanglewood Music Center ended with a bang—the only way it ever should—with Beethoven’s triumphant final symphony. Preluded by Yankee tinkerer Charles Ives’s “Housatonic at Stockbridge” from Three Places in New England, the entire show made for the best of crowd pleasers at the end of summer.

“Housatonic at Stockbridge,” in a quick five minutes, gave concertgoers just enough dose of “modern” (though barely modern, having been composed over 100 years ago) medicine before settling in for Beethoven’s Ninth. Composed between 1911 and 1914, “Housatonic” is the third in a series of three movements. The first, “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston (Colonel Shaw and his Colored Regiment),” refers to the monument opposite the State House. “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut” tells the story of a child who falls asleep at a village picnic, paying tribute to his time as a boy listening to the village cornet band and then recalls the Battle of Bunker Hill. The movement is also known for its borrowing many classic American tunes such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Marching Through Georgia,” “Massa’s in the Cold Ground,” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”

“Housatonic” pays an impressionistic tribute to Robert Underwood Johnson, who wrote a poem of the same name. Ives shows that he is a New England Transcendentalist in this movement through and through, paying homage to his own walks in the Berkshire Mountains along the Housatonic River with his wife Harmony. The entire movement is atmospheric and truly exemplifies Ives’s joy in nature. A bell tolls faintly throughout the piece, both reminiscent of Ives’s walks along the river, where he heard distant singing from the church across the river, as well as Ives’s constant recalling of the ghost of Henry David Thoreau’s Concord bell.

Andris Nelsons’s rendition of “Housatonic” (rarely played with the BSO) also brought some needed impressionism to the overtly excited audience. Its juxtaposition with the Beethoven astounded; after “Housatonic” barely rose over a whisper, the Ninth roared on. Nelson’s conducting was to the point, without flair or any notable expression. The true interpretation came from the percussion and strings, whose communication and understanding created a tender haze that floated to the lawn.  

How, one wondered, could Ives’s “Housatonic” introduce the Ninth. Yet Ives’s music is no stranger to Beethoven’s, his third movement from his Second Piano Sonata, “The Alcotts,” famously quotes Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “Housatonic at Stockbridge” derives from a very introspective state of mind, while Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony almost transcends the form, as chorus and soloists and cry out in jubilation.

Nelson’s retelling of the Ninth Symphony was predictable, as one might expect from such a crowd-pleasing end to the season. His gestures were practiced and mechanical, but not particularly novel or imaginative. The communication between orchestra, soloists, and chorus was perhaps lost in translation, leading to a few missteps in balance throughout the final movement. However, the hall never relaxed, and the playing was overall quite clean.

The solo quartet in the Ninth Symphony included soprano Katie van Kooten, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Russell Thomas, bass-baritone John Relyea, and strikingly, Russell Thomas, who also sang on Saturday night’s operatic celebration filled with Puccini, Wagner, Dvořák, and Gershwin. Previously Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s artist-in-residence (2014-2015), Thomas’s enthusiasm was resounding. His warm tone and charisma stole the entire performance, although his gusto was matched by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, whose sincerity made up for the lack of imagination in other areas.

Andris Nelsons leads Beethoven 9 (Hilary Scott)

Nelsons mentioned between the two pieces that the Ninth Symphony tells a message of peace, collaboration, togetherness, and above all, music beyond borders. This also rings true for “Housatonic at Stockbridge;” Ives’s short piece constitutes a transcendental unfolding meant to remind us how the natural world erases borders. Though introspective, “Housatonic” boldly asserts what is essential. Beethoven’s resounds with joy and truth. Is there really a better way to end a season?

Rachael Fuller is an administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied piano and music theory. By night, she is a practicing musicologist and concert enthusiast.

2 Comments

  1. I like Ms. Fuller’s deadpan journalistic balance: emphasizing the undersung Ives, downplaying the overdone Ninth. Yes, the BSO might well have played all “Three Places in New England”.

    Comment by Fred Bouchard — August 31, 2017 at 11:02 am

  2. For me, the third movement came across particularly well, listening from inside the shed. On a bright sunny afternoon in the Berkshires, time stood still and space was palpable. I thought maestro Nelsons and the BSO brought this off masterfully. Good to hear the 9th in a hall of a size befitting its audacity. Agree that the percussion and strings really delivered the goods.

    Comment by Joseph Snodgrass — August 31, 2017 at 4:37 pm

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