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TMC Orchestra Commemorates Bernstein


The annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, with the special attractions of a new piece by John Williams and a featured appearance by Yo-Yo Ma, enticed a large crowd to Tanglewood Sunday. To be sure, many concerts this summer have been, in some sense or other, memorials to Bernstein, and the intensity of this activity will reach its height next Saturday, which would have been his 100th birthday. But last Sunday’s matinee by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra—an annual summer ensemble that had reveled in Bernstein’s conducting from the very beginning of his career—included something by his closest mentor, a new piece by a current leading admirer, one work of his own, and it closed with one of the great masterpieces commissioned by his mentor, Koussevitsky. Andris Nelsons conducted.

Bernstein’s close friendship with Aaron Copland  began with a chance meeting on Copland’s birthday while Bernstein was a student at Harvard; they remained close all their lives, dying just a few months apart. So a work by Copland is a particularly suitable one for a concert with this theme. Copland wrote the Outdoor Overture for the youthful orchestra at New York’s High School of Music and Art. The open Shed on a sunny afternoon made a perfect setting for a performance by another youthful orchestra some 70 years later. The bright energy of the overture captures the spirit of youth, and the TMC players responded to Nelsons’s direction with all the energy you could ask for. The bright fanfares, the staccato vamp, the lively theme against it sounded just the right opening for the concert.

Something quite different premiered next. John Williams’s Highwood’s Ghost refers to the elegant Highwood Manor House, the principal building on an estate that was contiguous to the Tanglewood grounds since the middle of the 19th century. Its last private owner, a New York City attorney named Mason Harding, decided to sell it in 1986, giving the Boston Symphony Orchestra first refusal. The purchase greatly expanded the size of the Tanglewood campus, offering space for more parking lots, for Ozawa Hall, and for the building under construction now that will serve starting next year as the site of a new program in music education that will go on year-round.

Highwood House itself immediately became rather notorious when Leonard Bernstein was heading up a stairwell inside the building and felt an unexpected draft. He declared, “This place is haunted!” And the story got picked up by the press and carried around the world. (For the record, to the best of my memory, someone later explained that the shaft of a dumbwaiter that ran up and down through the floors of Highwood, allowed such drafts to occur unexpectedly, and not poltergeists.) Nonetheless, imaginative people often intuit mysterious past events in a building that is already a century and a half old, and such impressions need not refer to phantasms, but actually the cultural memory of the place, which continues to grow from year to year.

John Williams chose this remembered anecdote to serve as the basic inspiration of the work that he composed to celebrate “Lenny’s” centennial. He chose harp and cello as the leading instruments for “an ectoplasmic visit,” and even hinted, in his essay, that the piece “might be a little haunted by Lenny.” This is not to suggest imitation or quotation, but at most subtle hints of a connection between Tanglewood and the two composers who have loved the place at different times.

For the most part, Highwood’s Ghosts maintains a surprising quiet, allowing the two soloists to form a duo, each conversing with one another, providing mutual support, and perhaps suggesting a slightly nervous walk through an ill-lit building of considerable age. The subtitle of the work is “An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra.” At the same time, the encounter avoids anything like conventional “ghost music.” The harp begins the dialogue and soon the cello enters as well, both unfolding mysterious, keening song. The orchestra provides a hushed support, but in the middle of the work it takes on a more active role with a dynamic section of complex rhythmic interplay (possibly the rhythms are part of the haunting from Lenny), before returning to the slow, quiet conclusion that is still not devoid of tension.

Soloists Jessica Zhou and Yo-Yo Ma partnered exquisitely, offering back and forth question and commentary while evoking the uncertainty of visions and thoughts both at the beginning and the end. Nelsons kept the orchestra appropriately subdued so that the duet conversation could be heard even in its most restrained moments. Afterwards, John Williams received a roar of enthusiasm  applause, as he celebrated Zhou, Ma, Nelsons, and the TMC Orchestra with great warmth.

Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Jessica Zhou, and Andris Nelsons bow following the world premiere of ‘Highwood’s Ghost’ with the TMCO, (Hilary Scott photo)

Ma returned to solo in 3 Meditations from Bernstein’s Mass, his large, complex, and ungainly work composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The “meditations” offer just under 20 minutes of pensive, yearning, aching music from the full-length work in a form that captures an important part—but only a part—of the theme of the liturgical score presented as a dramatic work. Bernstein made the original arrangement for cello and orchestra for his dear friend Mstislav Rostropovich. Ma has also made it very much his own. The first two “meditations” come almost directly from Mass, though with some re-scoring, especially in creating the solo cello part. The third is a more elaborate re-composition of several passages from Mass. As with the Williams premiere work, the orchestra achieved a beautiful balance with the unusually rather suppressed expression of the soloist.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, one of the greatest works commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is also one that Bernstein conducted often. For this closer, the orchestra could open up the full range of volume and color, rhythm and energy displayed earlier in the Copland overture, while also keeping, as needed, the delicate and subtle pianissimos which had been hinted at and sustained in the Williams and Bernstein scores. The TMCO succeeded in bringing out the mysterious hushed leaping fourths of the opening, the driven allegro that followed, the playful “game of couples” in the second movement (showing off the woodwinds in pairs), the magical “night music,” and the delightful “interrupted serenade,” which includes not only a lush romantic passage, but also Bartók’s sardonic parody of a notorious passage in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. (Hugh Macdonald’s comment in his program note that “Bartók probably never understood the complex disguises that Shostakovich had to assume in order to survive…” is very much to the point.) Having brought out all the colors and warmth and wit in the earlier movements, Nelsons brought the last movement home with drive and brilliance to the spectacular brassy close.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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