with Michael Prichard
Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall was full to bursting on Wednesday evening for a dramatic contemporary recital by the Emerson String Quartet et alia, capped by the world premiere of Penelope, David Fetherolf’s completion of André Previn’s final composition. The glittering roster of performing and literary guest artists included soprano Reneé Fleming, actress Uma Thurman, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and playwright Tom Stoppard.
The much-awarded Emersons just completed a season in residence at the Smithsonian Institution and maintain a teaching commitment to Stony Brook University, where its members — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins — are on the faculty.
Beginning with a long wait for the audience to quiet, the first half of the program featured movements from three contrasting American string quartets, opening with the lovely Lyric for Strings movement (second) from George Theophilus Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1. A graduate of Oberlin, Curtis, and Eastman who died last year, Walker studied with Nadia Boulanger and Rudolf Serkin before embarking on a 50-year career as organist, pianist, composer, and college professor. He was the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition, in 1996, for Lilacs for voice and orchestra, premiered by the BSO under Ozawa. A vibrant and flashy concert pianist, he was also the first African American to recital at Manhattan’s Town Hall and to solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He published a thoughtful autobiography in 2009, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist.
Originally titled Lament, the lush piece resides mostly in the strings’ low register and was a gorgeous way to open the event, matching the cool evening scene perfectly. For this single movement the Emersons produced their best sound of the night, a stunning, warm variety of tone that eased the audience into contemplative silence.
Complex and challenging music lay at the heart of the first half: Richard Wernick’s new String Quartet No. 10, premiered by the Emersons last March in the new Pierre Boulez Saal, in Berlin. Its series of sections, grouped into three movements, were played without pause.
Building on his innovative String Quartet No. 4, composed for the same ensemble in 1989, this work features “two first violin parts” of equal virtuosity. Played with such virtuosity, the music comes across as a combination of contrapuntal webs interwoven with sustained dissonances; the fugal passages are a real workout for the strings with the violins frequently in the stratosphere, framed by pianissimo echoing consonant melodies. According to the composer, the first movement’s “somewhat inebriate” central Fuga Pomposa “presents the subject in the second violin, with the answer coming from the first violin in larger note values, at a different speed, and upside down.” The second movement quotes from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang [from Opus 132], and “the Lamentoso third movement is a Coda to the extent that it is a playing out of the bolero-type dance rhythm from the first movement.”
The half concluded with a moving rendition of Samuel Barber’s early String Quartet. The audience murmured with recognition at the famous central Adagio (popular as both the orchestral Adagio for Strings and the choral Agnus Dei). Because of the lack of orchestral density, the individual melodies strained slightly out of tune (maybe purposefully), giving Barber’s contrapuntal, ascending phrases extra poignancy. The very short final movement (Molto allegro) was played in a more reserved interpretation than is typical, and we listeners were the richer for it.
The big draw of the evening was the star-studded world premiere of Penelope (2019), framed by extensive notes and concluding remarks celebrating the life of André Previn, who died last February. This work is a tableau with Stoppard’s clever narrative divided fairly evenly between a recitative-like soprano (written for Reneé Fleming, and very similar to some of Previn’s earlier music for her from his opera Streetcar) and satirical, pithy commentary from a spoken narrator (brought to life by the alternatingly seductive and hilarious Uma Thurman). Performances of Penelope will follow soon at Ravinia and Aspen and at the Kennedy Center next May.
Fleming was in great voice, her English diction so crisp that you could put the program down and just enjoy watching (although the lights were left up inside Ozawa Hall and most followed along with Stoppard’s libretto). Since her BSO debut at Tanglewood, in 1991, Fleming has had a huge impact on classical performance and commissioning in this country: she is this summer’s Koussevitzky Artist, and sings in another BSO-commissioned world premiere, Kevin Puts’s The Brightness of Light, as well as offering masterclasses with young singers of TMC and participating in two Tanglewood Learning Institute sessions.
Assisted by Eric Valliere, Uma Thurman was an amazing narrator, bringing to life with personality and humor Stoppard’s witty wordplay. The spoken text is almost never intended to be read in rhythm, although roughly half of the narration was accompanied by strings and/or piano. In a few places Thurman stopped in midphrase for a musical effect to finish and then complete the sentence; like Peter and the Wolf, much of the “background” music was onomatopoeic, dissonant with moments of consonance, and playful in a way that sustained the audience’s interest and supported the narrative. Although Thurman was miked, the other six performers were not; additional microphones scattered around the stage allowed for a sophisticated balancing of the sound to be projected to the many listeners out on the lawn. Like the two voices of Penelope, Previn intended the piano and quartet to be treated as independent entities for most of the piece, each enhancing the voices and each, in the substantial passages without voice, evoking the intensity and anxiety of the unspoken action.
The score carefully balances song and speech, crafted, finished, and edited by David Fetherolf. His program notes revealed the difficulties in completing the work: “André Previn died before completing his final composition […] but he had nevertheless done very substantial work on it. André’s commissioners, publisher, and agents consulted among themselves and asked me, his editor of 22 years and close friend, to gather up what he had done and, if possible, to bring it to conclusion.
“About two weeks after André’s death, I met [his son] Matthew at the apartment and was given a pile of manuscript pages. As was often the case with André’s compositions, there were no bar numbers and few page numbers. Luckily, Tom Stoppard’s text was there, which guided me in putting the pages in correct order. However, there were many more pages than needed; in some, text was unaccompanied while in others the same text was accompanied. There were also some pages which were barely sketched in. I got everything in order and had my first meeting with soprano Renée Fleming, the Emerson Quartet’s first violinist, Eugene Drucker, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. I went through the manuscript with them and we decided that I should set everything André had set, and then in rehearsal we would see what worked.
“André had told me that Penelope was about thirty-seven minutes long, but at our first rehearsal we discovered that it was nearly an hour…. Renée had her own libretto with sections marked ‘spoken’ and ‘sung’. It was as if André was playing around with things he knew wouldn’t be set and, in some of them (none that I used), there were even other orchestral instruments written in. I’ll bet he was hearing a full orchestration of the work in the future. Last, I gave Penelope the dedication I know André would have used: to Renée.
Tom Stoppard’s remarkable contribution to Penelope may be read in its entirety as part of the program notes for the event HERE. Stoppard spoke about his connection to Previn and contributed written remarks about the genesis of the work: “‘Listen, if you ever want to write something which needs a symphony orchestra, I’ve got one.’ This was André Previn in 1974 in London. We met when his wife Mia was rehearsing a play by Lorca for which I had made an English version. André had been principal conductor of the London Symphony since 1969 and he was a household name in Britain. We took to each other right away. Who could not take to André? He was, despite himself, glamorous. He was brilliant, funny, with Beatle looks, a huge hit with the LSO, and a popular favourite on TV. When he offered me an orchestra, so to speak, I accepted on the spot. It took a while for us to arrive at the right idea but the result was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), which he conducted at the Royal Festival Hall, a Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Trevor Nunn.
“When I made my debut and swansong as a songwriter for Rough Crossing, my adaptation for a play by Ferenc Molnár, André obliged with two deft charming tunes” and tried “to persuade me to collaborate on an opera. I had to insist I didn’t know how, and as the years went by, André switched to the idea of my writing a monodrama, specifically for his friend Renée Fleming.”
Stoppard summarizes the plot: it is “the story of Penelope, the loyal and steadfast wife of Odysseus, who waited ten years for her man to win the Trojan War and ten more for him to make his way home. It had love, it had grief, it had drama, it had a happy ending.” Stoppard also described the process of developing the work: “André at the keyboard in his flat in Manhattan, with Renée dropping by to look over his shoulder at the pencilled score (which I couldn’t read). His gallantry carried him to see Renée in Carousel on Broadway and again to see my play The Hard Problem, and it was quite a business getting him into and out of a car. He watched my play from a wheelchair. That was last November. When I returned home to England, André had virtually finished Penelope. … I would guess he was still busy with something right up to the day he went to hospital. Previn’s Penelope, which would have been a 90th-birthday present to himself, is now in memoriam.”
The work closed with a nod to classical plays, evoking rosy-fingered dawn and leaving us with the narrator’s voice: “I asked no more, but went to sleep in his arms. May Penelope the Wise be my fame and title, and so tell your children; and so farewell.”