in: Reviews

July 21, 2018

Jupiter Aligns With Blomstedt and No. 17 With Ax

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Herbert Blomstedt conducts TNCO last week (Hilary Scott photo)

With a large gas planet orbiting overhead, Tanglewood  showcased veteran favorites Emanuel Ax and Herbert Blomstedt in Mozart Friday in an  enjoyably light concert which contrasted Mozart’s last symphony with the best known of his piano concertos, No. 17 in G Major, K. 453, whose opening movement now features as the representative classical piano concerto in many undergraduate score anthologies, including the omnipresent Norton Scores.

Ax’s legendary light touch provided the highlight of the evening; his delicate filigree enticed a reduced BSO to new heights of lyricism and playfulness. Blomstedt achieved great contrast through an economical conducting style, bringing out long crescendos in the “Jupiter” (Symphony No. 41, K. 551) and eliciting a roar from the audience at the concert’s conclusion, under starry skies. The Shed’s large video screens have been relocated, causing audience members to clump in groups behind them on the lawn, and leaving plenty of room in other sections for less formal picnicking, sauntering, and the playful laughter of children.

Billed as an “Underscore Friday” concert, the evening began shortly after 8pm with six minutes of introductory remarks by the newest violist in the orchestra, Kathryn Sievers. Originally from the Marshall Islands, Sievers spoke engagingly about her origins in the Marshall Islands, her excellent summer training under the legendary Heidi Castleman, [see her “Job Description for the Viola Student HERE] and the rich, alto “voice” of the viola. Beginning a few years ago, the BSO departed from the standard practice of providing its patrons with free pre-concert lectures before all subscription concerts, now only occasionally offering full-length expert talks, and opting for a variety of less formal artist interviews, programming/events discussions with administrators, and short introductions from the orchestral BSO players themselves. As someone who switched majors from Chemistry to the professional study of classical music at Yale after my discovery as a college student of the rich history and context of the music I had been playing my whole life, I strongly feel this does a disservice to the audience. Perhaps someday soon, the BSO will reinstate regular pre-concert lectures, matching the level of audience education provided by other great American orchestras such as Chicago and San Francisco. Leonard Bernstein would certainly have supported such an opportunities for BSO listeners. Full program notes for the concert by Steven Ledbetter and Michael Steinberg are available online HERE.

Emanuel Ax has been featured all week at Tanglewood, coaching students and appearing with violinist Pamela Frank in another all-Mozart program on Wednesday, July 18 in Ozawa Hall. Three dramatic, violin sonatas (Nos. 10, 13, and 15) framed the lovely Piano Sonata No. 15 in F Major, K. 533, written by Mozart during his work on Don Giovanni. A startling work, it contrasts extremes of texture (bare themes with thick accompaniment), style (lyrical arioso melodies with dense counterpoint), and mode (long minor-key developments and a chromatic Andante).  Mozart composed one of the most interesting of the violin sonatas, No. 13, K. 454, for the Italian virtuosa singer, violinist, and composer Regina Strinasacchi (1761-1839), who had been educated at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. Mozart premiered the work with her in front of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna on April 29, 1784. Her violin, a 1718 Stradivarius, became conductor Louis Spohr’s favorite instrument, and now belongs to Professor Miriam Fried of New England Conservatory.

Thursday’s Ozawa Hall concert celebrated pianist Leon Fleischer’s 90th birthday, featuring him as a performer in solo and chamber music. Two Bach solos (“Sheep May Safely Graze” from Cantata No. 208 and Brahms left-hand arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor) contrasted with a gorgeous, virtuosic solo rhapsody written for Fleischer by American composer Leon Kirchner (1919-2009). This fascinating work, which Fleischer debuted in December 1995 in Carnegie Hall, is simply titled “L. H.” [the standard abbreviation for the left hand]. It recalls some of Liszt’s groundbreaking writing and Kirchner’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning Quartet No. 3: this seven-minute solo showpiece deserves serious attention from advanced students of piano.

Lucien Garban’s romantic four-hand arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse (with Fleischer’s wife, Professor Katherine Jacobson of the Peabody Institute) and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414 (385p), featuring TMC Fellow Carl Anderson on bass and the precise, witty playing of the New Fromm Players Chi Li and Jacob Schafer (violin), Samuel Pedersen (viola), Sonia Mantell (cello) rounded out the program.

An Ozawa Hall concert featuring members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led by controversial new director James Burton, preceded Friday’s all-Mozart program in the Shed. His earlier work with Oxford’s intercollegiate Schola Cantorum may be heard on several CDs, including “Oculi Omnium: A Celebration of England’s Choral Tradition” (Multigram), “Einojuhani Rautavaara: Choral Music” (Hyperion, 2010), “Sweet is the Music: Works from the Faber Publishing House” (Faber), and “Randall Thompson: The Peaceable Kingdom” (Hyperion, 2008). The singers punctuated Ildebrando Pizzetti’s gorgeous Requiem with four shorter favorites, including Giovanni da Palestrina’s Roman-chant infused Sicut cervus, Antonio Lotti’s chromatically tense Crucifixus, Giuseppe Verdi’s simple Pater noster, and a single movement of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.

Pizzetti’s Messa di Requiem (1923), one of the great masterpieces of modern unaccompanied choral music, perfectly sets the despair and hope of the Catholic Mass of the Dead, but it omits five sections of text, including part of the opening Gradual (“Requiem aeternam”), the Tract (“Absolve, Domine”), the Offertory (“Domine, Jesu Christe”), the Communion Anthem (“Lux aeterna”), and the concluding Antiphon (“In paradisum”). The work achieves heights of supreme beauty and displays utter confidence in its combination of liturgical texts, ancient melodies, and expressive use of texture and dissonance.

Pizzetti, a noted Italian “progressivist” (his term), taught at the Florence Conservatory in the years surrounding World War I; he directed the Florence and Milan Conservatories, and succeeded Respighi as Professor of Composition at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome (1936-1952). An active music critic (for the periodicals La Voce and La rassegna musicale, the Milanese newspaper Il secolo, and the Florentine newspaper La nazione), he also wrote books on the music of Italy and Greece. As a result of early exposure to Catholic Church practice and renaissance music, he preferred simple harmonic clarity to the “emancipated dissonance” becoming popular in Vienna. He denounced Schoenberg in print in 1914, co-founded a modernist periodical Dissonanza which published three issues of new Italian music, and sought to create works of impeccable balance, intonation, and tonal beauty.

Commissioned by the Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna to memorialize Italy’s King Umberto (1844-1900), he composed this late Romantic masterpiece between November 1922 and January 1923, one year after Pizzetti’s wife Maria Stradivari had died and during his move from Florence to Milan to direct the Conservatory. A recent article in Britain’s Musical Times had declared Pizzetti “doubtless the greatest musician in Italy today” after the successful La Scala premiere of his second opera. His new residence stoodjust behind the church of the Madonna della Tosse on Via Pancani, and the composer could hear the bells and melodies of daily masses from his window.

The composer remarked, “I do not know if, without a commission, I would have ever composer a Messa di Requiem. At the time of writing it, I was in such an emotional state that I became overwhelmed by the tremendous immensity of the text. Was it because of a desire to believe in something extra-terrestrial beyond my comprehension? Or was it because of my need for the hope of peace? I do not know. Perhaps I composed the Messa out of the despair caused by my uncertainties, or my seeking comfort from a feeling of resignation through the means of choral expression.”

Messa di Requiem premiered in Rome at the Pantheon on March 14, 1924 before a private audience that included King Victor Emmanuel III and his court. Conductor Alessandro Bustini led the premiere, which commemorated the 80th anniversary of King Umberto’s birth. Umberto “the Good” served as the King of Italy from 1878 until his murder by an anarchist in 1900, at which time his body was entombed in the Pantheon. The first public concert of the work took place 11 days later in Carnegie Hall, and the work continues to speak powerfully through a cappella choral styles ranging from the simplest plainsong melody to dissonant tone clusters. Since Mozart trained throughout the Italian States during his youth, this fragmented Italian choral feast made a perfect prelude for the evening’s main event with Ax, Blomstedt, and Mozart.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is in transition this summer, with over 70 longtime members not retained for future seasons. See BMInt’s article HERE.

This weekend provided one of the last opportunities to hear the group as envisioned by founding director John Oliver: diverse voices ranging in experience (some with over 40 years in this choir), age, and style, blended into a coherent whole. Their massed power worked best in Pizzetti’s demanding work, presented in Boston last season by the much smaller Seraphim Singers. This was a valedictory sound, full of ring, dynamic contrast and romantic splendor, but tinged with sadness for much of the audience and choir. For historical reasons, it was one of the most moving vocal concerts I’ve heard in Ozawa Hall.

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. A member of the TFC, she did not sing in the concert she reviewed above.

6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Laura, As someone who switched from Chemistry to Theater and English Literature, I appreciate your thoughts on the importance of audience education. However, my personal aversion to art-historical and music-theoretical/historical talks makes me treasure all the more the Underscore Friday talks by young members of the BSO who generally speak with passion, as did Sievers, of their chosen profession and the extraordinary opportunity to play with some of the world’s best. I side with Archibald Macleish, who famously wrote “a poem should not mean but be.” I’d far rather hear what moved someone to devote her/his life to art than have the art I’m about to partake of explicated for me. Nevertheless, yours is a wonderfully informative review of a glorious evening of music. Thanks for that.

    Comment by jaylyn — July 22, 2018 at 8:41 am

  2. “as envisioned by founding director John Oliver‘, but realized in this concert by the brilliant preparation and direction of James Burton. No controversy there in my opinion.

    Comment by Momus — July 22, 2018 at 6:36 pm

  3. A small detail, but it surprised me to see Mozart’s #17 described as his most “best known” piano concerto. I’d think that, at minimum, the D Minor (#20) and the “Elvira Madigan” (#21) are more generally famous and well-known. While I do think it’s a fascinating idea to consider how “history of music” anthologies influence what is most canonical, the Norton Anthology of Western Music (companion to what it is surely the most used music history text), has long featured #23 in A Major, which I also think is more played and well-known than #17. http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail-contents.aspx?ID=13402 Also, a very unscientific Spotify search shows almost twice the number of albums with #20 and #21.

    However, I love #17 and think it might be my favorite, so I’d be happy for it to top the charts!

    Comment by Michael Monroe — July 23, 2018 at 8:40 am

  4. I agree with MacLeish’s stricture, even to the extent of strongly disliking the poem in which it appears, which violates it. Another poet might have understood the irony in this, and used it to deepen the poem, but irony isn’t MacLeish’s strong suit. In any case, like jaylyn I don’t want to hear a lecture about the upcoming piece before I listen to it. However I think that some people do,and I thought that that’s what Underscore Fridays were for. At least we are warned.

    Like Michael Monroe I was surprised to see #17 referred to as Mozart’s best known, an honor that almost certainly belongs to #20, with 21-25 right behind. This changes with the times; right now the world is in a minor mood, and the C minor concerto is probably the second-most played, though 21 and 23 are also good possibilities. But please, for the love of God (who as we all know is very fond of Mozart), can that vile nickname for #21 be buried forever? Some unfortunate nicknames, like the Moonlight Sonata and the Archduke Trio, are probably with us forever, but there is some hope that a sublime masterpiece composed in 1785 can escape the ignominy of being known forever by the name of an obscure, and reputedly mediocre, 1975 Swedish movie.

    Comment by SamW — July 23, 2018 at 8:06 pm

  5. Wait, so you don’t want the second Schubert trio to be called the *Barry Lyndon* anymore, or Mahler 5 the *Death in Venice*?

    No ‘reputedly’ to it, btw.

    A half-century and more ago, no lay concertgoer or record collector in this country would have said No. 20 was the best-known, I think; it was 21 easily, along with 9. And of course 21 after that point.

    Comment by davidrmoran — July 23, 2018 at 10:46 pm

  6. “But please, for the love of God (who as we all know is very fond of Mozart), can that vile nickname for #21 be buried forever? Some unfortunate nicknames, like the Moonlight Sonata and the Archduke Trio, are probably with us forever, but there is some hope that a sublime masterpiece composed in 1785 can escape the ignominy of being known forever by the name of an obscure, and reputedly mediocre, 1975 Swedish movie”

    Should it be an embarrassment for me to state that when I hear the inner movement of the wonderful Mozart Concerto under discussion in this review, I immediately think of that “mediocre” movie mentioned by Sam W? More specifically I conjure up in my mind the young Pia Degermark who starred in the film and whose bucolic image adorned the cover of the LP that contained the soundtrack to the film. Because of this personal history, the act of referring to this piece as the “Elvira Madigan” Concerto holds for me no shame.
    If push came to shove and a critic forced to rename it, I would go for the “Pia Degermark Concerto.”

    The record jacket and music came to me in 1967. I was 13 years old. I’m not sure if I fell in love with Wolfie or Pia first; perhaps it was a tie. All I know is that both the music and the “still” from the movie encouraged me to fall more in love with life.

    If I understand the complaint correctly, Sam W. seems unhappy that great pieces of music sometimes have attached to them nicknames that bespeak commonalities.

    I take the opposite view.

    When I play or hear the Kegelstatt Trio, I revel in the image of pubs, good beer and skittles.
    When I hear or play a certain Haydn quartet I revel in the image of a lark ascending.
    Great pieces of abstract music are sublime for many reasons beyond the purely musical.
    Attaching a nick-name to such music helps to acknowledge this happy reality.

    Mozart and Haydn are my friends for a variety of reasons. Surely the main cause
    is that their music is damn fun to play with friends. But I also think that part of my affection
    lies in the possibility that their work also has nothing at all to do with music.
    The stuff resonates with visions of pubs, skittles, larks.

    And Pia Degermark.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — August 3, 2018 at 2:51 pm

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