The first Boston Symphony Orchestra program of the Tanglewood season required a dramatic change. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who had been scheduled to perform in Leonard Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2 (which, despite the title, is essentially a piano concerto), withdrew, due to a death in the family. On short notice, management booked the starry Yuja Wang, whose appearance certainly did not disappoint the assembled audience, in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Bernstein’s short Opening Prayer (Benediction) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—remained as planned.
Bernstein planned his setting of a Hebrew benediction from Numbers 6::24-36, used widely in both Jewish and Christian congregations, for the reopening of Carnegie’s Stern Hall in December 1986. As a kind of blessing to a familiar hall at such a time, it could function at Tanglewood at the beginning of a new season. The short orchestral work ends with a baritone, here Jack Canfield making his Tanglewood debut, intoning the Hebrew text.
Liszt’s E-flat Major Piano Concerto has been one of Yuja Wang’s warhorses for some time. Liszt linked the three movements essentially into a single large arc, with musical ideas returning at different tempos and levels of complexity. It is a work that constantly moves between thunderous dynamics and gentle lyricism, between rapid flowing fingerwork and percussive chords, between focus on the soloist and colors in the orchestra. It was once belittled as a “triangle concerto” because Liszt chose to begin one linking passage with a dialogue between the triangle (rarely used in his day except for exotic special effects) and the piano. But little by little the work came to be accepted as a prime example of the grand Romantic spirit.
Both Wang and orchestra produced every effect that could be desired. Liszt’s dynamics can change on a dime; Wang and Nelsons seemed to be reading one another’s minds as the piano and orchestra balanced one another in quick recognition of where the line was going. When the piano needed heavy block chords, Wang impressed with the strength of her arms and fingers, and when the orchestra set up opposing blocks, her fingers swept in smooth arcs up and down the keyboard as if well oiled. She gave the effect of lifting the roof right off the Koussevitzky Music Shed.
After several recalls to the stage for both soloist and conductor, a longish delay offstage raised the question of whether she would return for an encore; but the applause showed no sign of stopping. Eventually she returned, with her characteristic big smile and low bow, and sat down to play a short piece that, if anything, sounded even more virtuosic than the concerto: Vladimir Horowitz’s arrangement of the Gypsy Song from Bizet’s Carmen. Of course it set off another wildly enthusiastic ovation.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, one of the most significant orchestral works of the 20th century, has long been a BSO specialty, even though though it took a while after its 1913 to become established here—and that was even after Pierre Monteux, the conductor of the premiere, became the BSO’s music director. But despite its fearful early reputation for dissonance, it had become quite welcome by the time of Monteux’s last visit in the 1950s, and later conductors happily led a wildly colorful score that few people fear any more. We heard the composer’s greatly enlarged version (the concert program listed 19 additional players). At its climactic moments in each part of the score, the ballet strikes the listener as possibly the loudest piece of music ever written, yet many other places are so hushed and mysterious that one has to focus with deepest attention.
Even in concert presentations the scenario of the dance gives an outline of what Stravinsky’s themes, rhythms, and motifs of Russian folk song, layering extended ostinato themes in irregular phrases with unexpected offbeat rhythms. The more we hear it, the more vivid the score becomes. As with the very different Liszt concerto on the first half, the color and dynamic range of the Boston Symphony lifted us out of our seats—where listeners remained for another extended ovation.
The Prelude concert in Ozawa Hall offered generally unfamiliar chamber works to a welcoming audience. The first two works were string duos performed by violinist Catherine French and violist Mary Ferillo. Bohuslav Martinů’s Three Madrigals for violin and viola has become a fairly well-known piece, a welcome one for the lively interplay possible between two players as beautifully matched as French and Ferillo, who tossed the rhythmic and thematic ideas back and forth with abandon. Though “madrigal” refers normally to a vocal piece normally for four to six voices (though a very few publications with only two voice parts existed), Martinů’s choice of the term suggests an updated Renaissance style that merely suggests texts playfully echoed between the parts.
The same pair of players continued with Peter Child’s Occasions, a set of five short pieces for violin and viola written for specific people and events. Three of the movements constituted gifts to string players who were his colleagues at MIT: birthday cards for violinist Young-Nam Kim, violists Marcus Thompson and John Harbison, a “get well” card for Harbison and his violinist wife Rosemary (a composition that the two recipients could perform comfortably at home). One movement sounded elegiac rather than celebratory; the most extended and moving of the lot, it offered a memorial tribute to Gunther Schuller, who had played a large and varied role in the music of Boston and just about everywhere else.
James Lee III, a 2002 composition Fellow at Tanglewood Music, wrote his Piano Trio No. 3, Tones of Clay, for its performers, the Calyx Trio (Catherine French, violin; Jennifer Lucht, cello; Nina Ferrigno, piano), who commissioned a score from was completed a year ago and premiered at Tanglewood’s Linde Center on November 14th. Each of the four movements adopts an image of clay, with philosophical/spiritual/religious connotations, from the earliest image of Adam and Eve in Eden (symbolized by the opening fifth A-E in cello and violin. The progression of the movements through the percussive violence of “Fiery Clay” (evoking violence, bias, prejudice) to “Molded Clay” (suggesting a rebuilding—not without effort—of a position of respect and love. The final movement, “Ransomed Blood,” reworks some of the more embattled themes from earlier into a calm suggestion of a heavenly goal. The trio was called upon—and responded with drama and color—to counter one another’s roles, particularly the occasionally thunderous piano part, with long lines in the two stringed instruments or pizzicato soothing gestured to achieve a sense of closure.
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.