Tanglewood is all about bringing youthful talent and mature musical experience together –about mingling dawn and dusk for the sake of an unfolding eternity. On Friday evening, assistant conductor Yu-An Chang made an auspicious BSO debut with works by two teenage composers, Mendelssohn and Schubert, framing a third composer’s last major work, namely Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Pianist Conrad Tao stepped in to replace Ingrid Fliter*.
The evening started with an exquisite Prelude Concert in the Sejii Ozawa Hall, featuring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of James Burton. After opening with a memorable Bruckner motet, “Locus iste,” the program included three pieces that stood out for their magnificent interpretation. In the Mendelssohn Psalm 43, “Richte mich , Gott,” the Chorus and Burton delivered a seamless unity of meaning and music, conveying an exceptionally rich doxological joy. In Bach’s Motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” in contrast, they boldly left the meaning of the words behind to reveal a perfectly abstract and utterly thrilling architecture of sound. Finally, with the Chorus now au complet filling the stage, they performed Schoenberg’s Opus 13, “Freide auf Erde,” with expressive musical force that conveyed the urgency that words alone cannot communicate. They will sing the Schoenberg piece again on Sunday, before Beethoven’s 9th. As a prelude to orchestral concert, the a capella singing cleansed the hearing and focused the heart.
As night gathered outside the Shed, Yu-An Chang led a riveting performance of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. From the start he took the overture seriously for both its beauty and depth, with the four opening chords in the winds skillfully paced, slow, soft, mysterious and spacious. The rapid scuttling of the fairies ppp (with crickets outside contributing) gave way to a grand, majestic “royal court of Athens” entry, building in speed and excitement to the gentle love theme. Chang nicely avoided exaggeration in the braying closing theme. In the recapitulation, he endowed the love theme with a feeling of being viewed in retrospect, taking the braying theme a bit up-tempo, again as if remembered. The fairies had the last word in the coda, fading away with the dawn.
One of the last works Ravel completed, as a neurological disorder robbed his ability to set the music in his head down on paper, the Piano Concerto in G Major, is wonderfully complex, bringing together disparate elements of Basque and Spanish themes with the recent jazz influence to which Ravel was in thrall; all combine into a coherently incoherent whole. Youthful Conrad Tao took command from the opening whip crack, his glissandos sharp and dramatic, the thematic statements firm, alternating with tender lyrical passages, then suddenly dynamic, rhythmic, driven. All the while Chang led the orchestra masterfully as full partners in the interplay, piano and orchestra feeding off each other as in a jazz improvisation. Toward the end of the movement, softness and silence became as dramatic as the earlier, louder dynamics had been, culminating in a dramatic pianistic flourish with a sarcastic orchestral response. Tao stated the long, flowing opening statement of the Adagio straightforwardly, but at the same time sadly and thoughtfully while conveying some joy at the possibility of memory, aria-like but restrained. Chang allocated emotional expressiveness largely to the orchestra, inviting it to swell to a crisis, which Tao’s piano then contained and transformed, fading it gently into pianissimo trills. As if drawing strength from wisdom harvested through the introspective adagio, the forces gave the Presto finale an energetic, purposeful, and improvisational, feeling with abrupt staccato chords, rhythmic drive, chaotic swirling building to a pianistic frenzy, ending exactly where it had begun.
In homage to Elliot Carter, whom he evoked as haunting the grounds of Tanglewood, Tao encored with a spectacular performance of Caténaires, composed when Carter was 98 years old.
How would a 17-year-old Schubert find his own distinctive voice? Would he build on Haydn, or would he embrace Beethoven? In his delightful Symphony No. 2 in B-flat Major, D. 125, the influence of early Beethoven is explicit in Schubert’s use of the main theme from that composer’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture for this symphony’s first movement. Chang chose to base his reading on that choice by emphasizing power and drive, while showing how Schubert’s melodic gift could be reconciled with, or at least brought into dialog with, the overwhelming force of Beethoven. In the first movement, Chang brought out the strong contrasts between explosive outburst as Elizabeth Rowe (we think) intoned magnificent Keats-like melodiousness with her flute. In the Andante 2nd movement, Chang interpreted Schubert as experimenting with moving away from Haydn’s commitment to form through exploring how a Haydnesque theme could be turned into melody. Chang made this especially evident in the 4th variation, strong and dramatic yet basically melodic. The Menuetto continued the energetic and melodic power of the 4th variation with a rapturously melodic Trio section. “On the Wings of Song!” Chang gave real meaning to the Presto finale, which is so often treated as an afterthought. He brought out the titanic power and sublime drive of Schubert’s embrace of Beethovenian thunder, but he also insisted that the beautiful melodic line resurface again and again. Youthful talent on the shoulders of mighty giants! From dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn, Tanglewood nurtures the perennial. Locus iste a Deo factus est.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.
* As noted on the BSO web site: “Pianist Ingrid Fliter has withdrawn from her upcoming Tanglewood performance on the advice of her doctors who have recommended that she not fly during her pregnancy.’