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Conductors, Commissions & Playing Impress


Nathan Aspinwall

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s Monday evening concert on July 15th contained, as usual, pieces conducted by the two Tanglewood conducting Fellows, Nathan Aspinwall and Killian Ferrell, followed on the second half by a major symphony in the standard repertory led in this case by Stefan Asbury, a member of the Tanglewood faculty.

Aspinwall led a colorful and expressive performance of a Respighi score—not one of the famous Roman scores celebrating the pines, festivals, or fountains of Rome, but rather what might be called a Florentine score celebrating the painter Sandro Botticelli in the form of tone-poems relating to three of his most famous paintings. As with the three Roman scores, Respighi creates highly colored and suggestive sound-pictures of “La Primavera” (Spring), with the suggestion, almost nonstop, of the light blowing of spring leaves on the trees and the figure of Spring herself surrounded by her votaries. The second movement is devoted to one of Botticelli’s religious paintings; these greatly outnumber the famous mythological subjects, which the Medicis commissioned. “The Adoration of the Magi,” suggests its own musical content: Respighi builds it on the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” with the flutes and bassoons in octaves over a mystical background. This most satisfying and pictorial scene of the set featured especially beautifully playing from the winds. It depicts “The Birth of Venus,” probably the most famous painting of all, in which Venus comes out of the sea on a half-shell, with figures covering her nakedness with a robe and blowing her toward shore. Here, even more than in the opening movement, the winds and the waves tremble and vibrate in s shimmering of brilliant orchestral color. Nathan Aspinall created and maintained these important nature sounds as the images arrived and departed in the full panel of Respighi’s brilliant coloration.

Helen Grime

The world premiere of a new piece by Helen Grime, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performed by the TMCO under Killian Farrell made for the concert’s special moment; in February 2020 the BSO will reprise it with conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. Born in England (1981), and raised in Scotland, Grime studied piano and oboe as well as composition. Since she came to Tanglewood for the first time in 2008, a number of her works have been performed, including a clarinet concerto commissioned by the TMC following her year as a composition Fellow, and Embrace, a duo for clarinet and trumpet, commissioned for the 75th anniversary of the TMC. In recent years, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music has offered several of her compositions. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, and others have also commissioned her. Her works include a oboe concerto that she performed herself and a piano concerto she created for her husband, Huw Watkins, as well as concertos for violin, percussion, and a double concerto for clarinet and trumpet.

Here this summer as a member of the TMC composition faculty, she brought another TMC commission, Limina, a work for large orchestra running about 15 minutes in a single movement. The title refers to “thresholds”—borderlines between successive states, an idea suggested by her reading a 1963 novel, The Ice Palace, by the Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas. The work is a long, gradual arch in form, building from an opening marked “Bright” to a monumentally dense climax, then relaxing to a close marked Ecstatic and tender at a pianissimo dynamic. The principal materials going into this long rise and descent, in terms of texture and dynamics, are long-held complex chords sustained by specific families of instruments (beginning with two-fold violas and cellos) over which the upper woodwinds undertake virtuosic flurries of rapidly moving figures in echoing statements. Bright it may be, but texturally dense as well. The choice of instruments projecting both the sustained chords and the complex flurries shifts, varies, multiplies gradually to the densest passage in the score with many reiterations of the rapid flurries over a powerful assertion of the sustained chords in the brass. The sense of power, even at a low dynamic, continues to the tender ending. It demands further hearing to absorb it fully, so it is good that we can hear it again in February.

Killian Ferrell

Stefan Asbury, a TMC faculty member who had coached the two Fellows on their work in the first two pieces, directed the closer, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, projecting the intense drive of powerful romanticism and the most delicate adumbrations of the breathless, hushed themes at moments of aching climax; the orchestra was with him all the way.

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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