The first appearance by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra each summer always generates interest: it is the first performance by an orchestra that did not exist a few weeks earlier, one consisting of roughly 100 players from all over the world who spend eight weeks as TMC Fellows, with an intense program of chamber music and orchestral rehearsals and coaching by leading musicians, to learn to make the most beautiful and expressive music that they can. In their orchestral concerts, they are led by the summer’s young Fellowship conductors, who, in turn, are coached by master conductors starting with Boston Symphony’s music director Andris Nelsons and continuing with visiting maestros.
Monday evening in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, a Fellowship conductor directed at the beginning of each half, and Andris Nelsons at the end of each.Though the Fellowship conductors are indisputably young, they have already had a wide range of experience before coming to Tanglewood.
Rita Castro Blanco, a native of Portugal, who has led several ensembles on the Iberian peninsula and from 2019-2022 been the principal conductor of the Huddleston Philharmonic Orchestra after receiving her master’s degree at the Royal Northern College of Music;she made a spirited entrance for the opener, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ravel composed his elegant tribute to French culture composed during the First World War as a piano piece, then he orchestrated it just after the war, dedicating the movements to friends who died in the conflict. His conceived his homage to the music of his native land with his characteristic restraint and rich colorism, for an orchestra of modest size. Castro Blanco sustained the delicacy that characterized much of the score and let go energetically in the lively final Rigaudo.
Nicolò Foron, a native of Genoa, Italy, who has worked extensively with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris and has also worked in Holland, Bulgaria, Germany, and London, took over for the second half. After early studies with Jorma Panula, he continued studying conducting, piano, and composition in Amsterdam before going on to a master’s degree at the Royal College of Music and earning an artist diploma at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Foron projected the aching lyricism of the familiar main themes in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, while shaping the dynamic range to emphasize the climactic moments as they surged from the subtle pulsing of the lower strings. The second movement—the last that Schubert finished—floated in its celestial sonority to the rapt silence.
Andris Nelsons ended the first half with one of Strauss’s tone-poems, Death and Transfiguration, an evocative score that moves from a deathbed scene depicting the last mortal experiences of a dying artist who “had striven for the highest ideals,” but whose body has collapsed, leaving him weak and sick somewhere short of his life’s goal. Strauss’s imaginatively colored score suggests the artist’s memories from childhood to his early glimpses of his ideal, and the pains of his last moments. Nelsons handled all of these passages with a precise clarity that delineates the musical images in their interweaving. When a momentary silence indicates the passage from life, the theme of the artist’s ideal returns in progressively expansive affirmations, which Nelsons built to the ecstatic climax of the artist’s accomplishment.
Nelsons concluded the concert with something different from the noble swell of the transfiguration music: The notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’s Salome, in which Herod’s stepdaughter accedes to his request that she dance for him by performing a salacious striptease in which she removes, one by one, the seven veils in which she has adorned herself. A very few singers have danced to the intended conclusion in recent decades. The Met debut had caused such outrage that the opera was omitted for years.
It is amusing to read that Strauss admitted to Stefan Zweig, the librettist of his opera Die schweigame Frau, that “no one composed kitsch better than I.” This dance, the last part of the opera that Strauss wrote, combines near-Eastern-sounding drums, wailing woodwinds, early moments of near silence, and hushed, slow steps where Salome begins, very slowly to disrobe. Nelsons crisply oriented the dance through different tempi and characters, gradually building to the final violent outburst. Strauss may not have intended it to be gracious music, but under Nelsons’s baton, it achieve immense effect.
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.