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Musical Prague Entices Tanglewood


The official beginning of the 2022 Tanglewood season comes tonight, with the first BSO concert of the summer. But richly satisfying program preceded it, the first of two curated by pianist Emanuel Ax, taking place on Thursday evenings, July 7th and 14th and on Friday, under the umbrella title “Pathways from Prague.” All of those concerts feature works by Dvořák and Janáček, leading musical figures in Prague at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

First came the rarely heard Janáček score The Diary of One Who Disappeared. On the face of it, this is a song cycle setting 22 stanzas of a Czech poem (Janáček himself thought of it as anonymous, though the writer was later identified as Ozef Kalda) outlining a simple tale of love, rather in the vein of one of Schubert’s cycles. But Janáček conceived this 45-minute work as a kind of crosslink between a song cycle and a miniature opera, with two principal characters—the innocent farmboy Janik (tenor) and the enticing, mysterious Gypsy girl Zefka. The poem claimed to be derived from the diary of a young man who vanished along with this seductive woman. Janáček supplied a few comments that could be taken as stage directions, though without indicating that they were a necessary part of the performance.

In Ozawa Hall on Thursday night both song cycle and mini-opera were suggested. The two singers who appeared onstage wore modern dress and generally suggested concert deportment, though occasional moves and gestures highlighted the essential moment of seduction. Three women never seen onstage served as a mysterious chorus. And the “orchestra” in this little opera was Janáček’s complex, varied piano part suggesting everything from the young man’s love agonies to wide-ranging evocations of Moravian nature scenes, of flowing water and singing birds and crucially, in a solo interlude, suggests the lovers’ passion, after which the young man prepares to vanish from his homeland, with his sweetheart, bidding farewell to his family and all he has known.

Emanuel Ax’s representation of all the personages and dramatic elements in the remarkable piano part was intensely powerful. Since we often hear him performing brilliant Classical lyricism in, say, a Mozart piano concerto at Tanglewood, the strength with which he projected this dense Janáček score offered an unusual aspect of his art.

Paul Appleby sang the challenging role of Janik, who sings in more than half the score, with a sturdy solidity of the farmboy overwhelmed by the enticements of the exotic woman, a seduction that, in the Moravian culture of the time, was seen as wrong because the two lovers represent different cultures, and the consummation of their passion produces an illegitimate child.

Contralto Emily Marvosh sings only a few stanzas of the poem, in the middle section of the piece, but the rich clarity of her voice captivates Janik. She circles gently around him as he sits at a table, finally reaching for him and taking his hand—the explicit moment of seduction. He is all hers now.

The offstage “chorus,” evoking the presumed mysterious powers of the Roma, which appear in many tales of the period, was made up of sopranos Sarah Brailey and Sonja Tengblad and mezzo Clara Osowski, who, like Emily Marvosh, are members of the remarkable women’s vocal ensemble Lorelei, a group that in recent years has performed with increasing frequency in BSO events.

Normally for vocal works in concert form at Tanglewood, management provides a text and translation, either printed in the program book itself or as an added insert. In this instance the English text only was wisely projected as supertitles. This, of course, strengthens the suggestion of Janáček’s work as an opera. It also has the specific advantage of projecting precisely the phrase that is being sung at a given moment. A non-Czech audience attempting to follow a printed text—especially one that is composed in such a “speaking” manner—is liable to be lost from soon after the beginning of the piece, or to give up entirely. Petra Gelbart edited the supertitles from the Sydney Chamber Opera’s texts, and Ruth DeSarno linked them effectively to the actual moments of the performance contributing greatly to the audience’s enjoyment of this somewhat obscure work. I must also note that a special article in the program book by Petra Gelbart provides a very enlightening discussion of views then and now of the Gypsies (Roma) as seen by central European populations, illuminating the background of Janáček’s score.

Emmanuel Ax, Paul Appleby, and Lorelei Ensemble (Hilary Scott photo)

The Dover Quartet (violinist Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Staat, and cellist Camden Shaw) then offered Dvořák’s String Quartet in G-Major op. 106, the first major work he composed after his return home after three years in the United States. Though his previous string quartet, the “American,” employed melodies that sounded like (or were) actual folk tunes, the composer built this quartet from motifs rather than full-fledged tunes, though he develops them into vigorous structures. The first movement ends—especially in the Dover performance—with such energy that it called out a round of applause; they showed complete engrossment in the poignant sweep of the slow movement’s variations, heightened by the changes from major to minor (a lesson that Dvořák seems to have learned from Schubert, whose music came to be known about the middle of the century, having been substantially overlooked for a generation after his early death). The final two movements also bring back varied and lively rhythms, and a last return of the movement’s rondo that earned quite the ovation.

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.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Or you can catch YoUo Ma and Emmanuel Ax at a benefit concert this Sunday the 24 at Greenagers in Egremont Ma.

    Comment by Karen Faveau — July 20, 2022 at 9:01 pm

  2. >> a lesson that Dvořák seems to have learned from Schubert, whose music came to be known about the middle of the century, …

    Steven, do you know this fond essay from 1894?

    Comment by David Moran — July 22, 2022 at 12:11 pm

  3. I’m just curious when the arts world is going the ethics up and stop finding new and exciting ways to portray stereotypes and hypersexualizing women of my race. If you were in my shoes fully understanding the history of my people and the horrors such “art” has led to you’d be flatly sickened at the gaul as well. An exploration in the program is not sufficient, racist art such as this belongs in the tombs of history. Simply because antigypsyism has been normalized in the arts world because we’re just to much of a temptation doesn’t make it acceptable. This is actually shameful.

    Comment by Anya Redgewell — August 1, 2022 at 9:30 am

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