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Charges of Electricity From Music Center Fellows


Thomas Rolfs (file photo)

Who doesn’t love Mondays? There’s a charged question. But for anyone present at Ozawa Hall last night, the combination of exceptional music-making and perfect weather (the mosquitoes were even sparse) might have converted even the most ardent Monday-hater. Perhaps Tanglewood is on to something. The Monday night show featured the TMCO, an orchestra comprising the talented Tanglewood Music Center fellows. BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons led the group of young musicians in Shostakovich and the world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Concerto for Trumpet, while TMC conducting fellows Nathan Aspinall and Killian Farrell also took turns at the helm.

Farrell, a concert pianist as well as conductor, opened the show boldly with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. TMCO well navigated the peregrine harmonies and breakneck pace of its Allegro while also lending shape and warmth to its slow introduction. Farrell led with confidence and wit, a slightly hunched posture not tarnishing the obvious confidence and energy he brought to the piece. His beat was clear and natural, save for a strange ‘snap’ which appeared from time to time, disrupting his physical flow but not the musical momentum. Berlioz’ ‘wow factor’ comes from his passionate sweep of his music, but his genius is seen only through clarity. This clarity (rhythm, balance) is difficult to achieve but reaps great rewards, and while the TMCO’s could have been a bit sharper, we forgave all when Farrell deftly re-energized the brass mid-note for a truly electric final chord.

Nathan Aspinall later conducted Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Fantasy-Overture. Its fame is rightly eclipsed by the better-known (and better-composed) Romeo and Juliet, but hearing this rarely performed work proved refreshing. Aspinall, who is currently associate at Jacksonville, had a good presence and gave great attention to the individual orchestra sections. He seemed at home in his gestures, in which one sensed the influence of Musin. The treacherous opening theme, which violently and relentlessly jumps thirds all through the string section, arrived together and in tune — nerve wracking in a good, intended way. Attacks throughout were clean, and the broad stretches were compelling. In Hamlet, you are often fighting the score, or at least trying to win a spirited debate with it—themes enter from nowhere, often stay too long, and sometimes (as is the case with Ophelia) are tonally incongruent. One wonders what Hamlet could have become after two revisions, which care the composer accorded to Romeo over the course of a decade. But Aspinall made sense of it all, producing one of the most compelling performances of this overture the author has heard. If one wanted to nitpick, one could observe that his gestures, while seemingly natural, appeared over the course of the overture to repeat verbatim, giving the impression he rehearsed them rather than allowing natural outflow of musical energy or presence in the moment.

Between these young conductors, Nelsons took the stage with BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs for the world premiere of the Glanert concerto. Commissioned by Rolfs, Glanert crafted it as an homage to his mentor Oliver Knussen, who had died during its composition. The concerto grabbed the listener by heart and mind and never let go. Set in four attacca movements, it seamlessly evolved from storm and stress, to the blues, and ultimately to a poignant farewell to the composer’s beloved friend.

The opening Rites set forth a massive orchestral maelstrom with a fully integrated percussion section. Above this the solo trumpet cries in long high tones and nervous, Prokofiev-like chromatic interjections. The music gets lyrical, but this is undermined by a bass line which becomes an ominous, menacing beat. In the central Songs movement, a “Knussen motif” is presented. Like B-A-C-H or the Shostakovich monogram, this motif persists to the end of the concerto. Through the lyrical lines and rangey passagework, Rolf’s trumpet shone clear and true; it was hard to see if during certain high passages, like a moment when the Knussen motif is declaimed high above the staff repeatedly, Rolfs employed circular breathing. However he did it, he executed with preternatural impressiveness.

For the third section, Dances, Rolfs took up the piccolo trumpet for if not the most technically challenging, surely the most non-idiomatic, interchanges of the whole piece. Quirky patterns, like extended ornaments, teleported through octaves between long, sustained tones. One this moment, one actually saw the effort on Rolf’s face, but everything was clean and musical. At the highest points in the solo line, Rolfs gained a “shadow trumpet” in the orchestra, a wonderfully effective device. The final Invocation, after a Rite-of-Spring-like transition, featured the trumpet in an extended candenza-dialog so textured one nearly forgot the orchestra was lying silent. After a second cadenza, the dialog-like nature becomes a solo journey, the trumpet rises up above gentle wind chords. The Knussen theme re-emerges, as the orchestra gains strength, turning from a companion to something to be escaped, and through ascending lines culminating in a final triumphant statement of the Knussen motif, the trumpet does just that, giving the dedicatee in the words of the composer, “his own personal heaven.”

The concert concluded with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. Written as his graduation piece from Petrograd Conservatory, the symphnoy solidified the young Shostakovich as a composer of technical craft and spiritual depth beyond his years. Nelsons, who is working on recording all 15 Shostakovich symphonies, led the TMCO in a nuanced and daring rendition. The disjointed lines of the opening movement revealed even more character as Nelsons eked out micro-shapes in every twist and turn of half steps and slurs. He took the allegros at uncompromising “Russian” tempi, and for the most part the TMC rose to the occasion (it’s possible the players only downed medium coffees during intermission — a lesson for next time). The slow movement developed great soul, featuring solos from violinist Shannon Fitzhenry, cellist Ethan Brown and oboist Joo Bin Yi.

It has been said that composition students want their first symphonies to do everything, to contain everything, and some elements of this youthful naivete exist in this otherwise wise and astute work, but Nelsons effectively stitched together the disparate elements into a cohesive, organic whole. At times, especially at crashing climaxes, he stopped conducting altogether and simply monitored the music the TMCO was creating, before taking the reins again. He adamantly kept the final bars from flagging, an indulgence that conductors often permit even though there is no indication from the composer that the music should do anything but charge forward. He led the young players as he would do with professionals, and they responded in kind, taking the next steps as developing musicians and artists.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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