in: Reviews

August 5, 2018

Exuberance Reigns at Tanglewood

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Bramwell Tovey leads the BSO in Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 (Hilary Scott photo)

Two of the three Tanglewood performances Saturday night reminded us of its essential greatness, beginning with an Ozawa Hall Prelude concert which for this reviewer constituted an artistic main act. Hearing eight well-coached Tanglewood Music Center Fellows at a time of perhaps their most idealistic wonder while possessed of fully developed artistry, I found myself transported to a glorious transcendental state. The intense 20-somethings hitched their own sensations of life’s storms, sorrows, and pleasures to Schubert’s in the wondrous Octet D. 803. From the first sumptuous sonorities, of horn, clarinet, bassoon, and string quintet in Rawn’s and Kierkegaard’s resonant but articulate acoustic, the inspired performers inflected and shaped their way into Schubert’s musical heart and our own. Bravi to Taylor Manning, clarinet; Thomas English, bassoon; Scott Leghoutier, horn; Momo Wong and Sage Yange, violins; Matthew Weather’s, viola; Matthew Chen, cello; and Carl Anderson, double bass.

The Bernstein Centennial Celebration continued in the venerable Shed with Bernstein’s flawed, rarely dredged-up Songfest, a cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra. Six major voices, each of whom could fill an operahouse with gorgeous tones, began a losing battle in a bellowed sextet to Frank O’Hara’s “Let us do something grand,” which ended with a boisterous brawl. While we could hear the singers, although not always make out their words, their effect was masked by the shed’s enormous open-air dimensions and the large orchestra’s often overpowering levels. After the seven-day flop of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Broadway, Bernstein strove for stature, relevance, and bicentennial patriotic zeal the next year in Songfest, which presaged diversity decades before the term became cant. Never less than clever, his “gorgeous mosaic,” based on 300 years of American poetry, rarely rises beyond artifice and pretense. The estimable Bramwell Tovey, a compleat man of the musical theater, pulled out all of the bouncy kitsch from the kitchen sink of colors and effects. Unlike Sibelius, who in the subsequent piece relied on a single timpanist for his percussion section, the omnivorous Bernstein employed everything imaginable: 4-5 timpani cans, schlockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone, tom-tom, anvil/finger cymbals, suspended-cymbals tam-tam, rape guiro, woodblocks, three rock drumsets, two side drums, tambourine, celesta, electric piano, tenor drum, xylophone, and Fender bass. (How we missed the crotales, though.) Among the 12 settings of 13 poems we found moments to enjoy. Lyric baritone Eliot Madore found his cool-cat beat and sly manner in Ferlinghetti’s “The Penny Candy Store.” With a showstopping high G and with profounder rumblings, bass baritone Erich Owens, who played a brilliant Alberich at the Met and has been stepping into Wotan around the country, brought a melodious mysterioso to Bernstein’s spurioso setting of Whitman. “What are these men who travel with me?”, the poet asked. The contrabassoon provided the enigmatic answer. Nicholas Phan’s middle-sized tenor focused beautifully in the Shed, his chortling in “Zizi’s Lament” (Gregory Corso) bringing forth the same from the crowd. With a somewhat apt and well-orchestrated setting of Anne Bradstreet’s “To my dear and loving husband,” a trio of Nadine Sierra, Isabel Leonard, and Kelly O’Connor gave voice to a poet, generally remembered in name only, with pleasantly adoring and angelic tones.

Clearly Bernstein identified with Mahler, profoundly, and was aiming in this instance at his own important symphonic song cycle, along the lines of Knaben Wunderhorn or “fahrenden Gesellen.” With his advocacy of Mahler’s oeuvre, Bernstein served music-lovers and the composer far better than he served himself. “What makes Songfest great?” I asked a musicologist in the audience. “Who said it’s great?” was his reply.

Nationalistic musical bombast only occasionally rises to greatness, but Sibelius’s evocation of the troubled times during Russia’s interference in Finland, in his Symphony No. 2, brilliantly contrasts deep professions of love of nature and nation with agitated anticipations. From the outset, this is a genie you are not in a hurry to put back in the bottle.

Sibelius’s first Grand Theme falls on the ear with authenticity and coherence. Yet for all its startling simplicity, it has absolute and distinct character. It proclaims “this is Music, and this is a unique voice.” (TS)

If the sonic landscape somewhat recalls Bruckner, the notes do not, and the repeated themes always come back with important differences. Sibelius’s preparations, affirmations, perorations carry us on in a dramatic and irresistible flow to a completely earned triumph. The intensity was so palpable the conductor, who gave precise directions in hairpins and detours and speed zones, seemingly stopped his beat at times to absorb the rare mood of total involvement. The wind and brass choirs and individual solos always counted (at times from my seat I imagined Mike Rylance and Thomas Rolfs in a tuba and trumpet concerto), the strings’ tonal variety supported every one of the many moods, and the busy Timothy Genis timpanized with essential command. What a night at the BSO.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

1 Comment

  1. Unhappily I must agree with Lee Eiseman’s remarks on Songfest. I listened over the radio, where the lucidity afforded by microphones revealed even more clearly than in the Shed the “artifice and pretense” of this deservedly obscure Bernstein composition. The Sibelius performance I found meandering and unfocused, until it wasn’t. From the third movement onwards the symphony went out in a blaze of glory.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — August 8, 2018 at 11:21 pm

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