Sunday afternoon’s BSO concert at Tanglewood rejoiced in perfect summer afternoon weather and the opportunity to discover two fine unfamiliar pieces by women—from the 19th and 21sst centuries—and a fundamental relic of the core repertory to close.
One of the nicest new touches this season for concerts involving a world premiere has been the practice of inviting the composer to say a few words. It makes the point that composers still live among us, that music continues to be created, and that—as in this instance—the composer is sometimes a woman. (That has happened more often this summer than used to be the case in any five-year or even ten-year span of orchestral history.)
Elizabeth Ogonek (b. 1989), one of the youngest composers to have appeared before a Shed audience in this manner, introduced her Starling Variations. Might it have been inspired by the notoriously noisy starlings that inhabit the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood and make raucous song periodically during concerts? (A couple of decades ago the Shed management adorned the building with inflatable plastic owls, which served, for a time at least, to minimize the problem.) At the beginning, Ogonek suggested large groups of birds suddenly taking off in flight with a colorful splash of orchestral sound. The “flock” passes through five variations that suggest different kinds of motion presented by the separate instrumental families and subsets. The generally lively piece made a brilliant effect.
One of the major female composers of the 19th century, Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) taught at the Paris Conservatoire as professor of piano, a title not granted to any other woman in the entire century. And, perhaps more remarkable then, she received, the same compensation as her male colleagues. For a long time, few women achieved regard for large-scale compositions like symphonies and concertos. An ongoing debate throughout the century held that women’s compositional facility worked for miniatures like songs and piano miniatures. Farrenc, however, composed three symphonies in the 1840s. The Third Symphony, in G Minor, received several performances in her lifetime, but then largely disappeared for a century. Andris Nelsons gave it a suitably dark, melancholy tone that built to a livelier energy. The Scherzo raced through in smiling energy and the finale recapture the relative darkness of the opening for an intense conclusion. What a pleasure it gave listeners to discover a significant unknown work from that period so popular to concertgoers.
Beethoven got rather far advanced on the first movement of a sixth concerto before deciding that his hearing loss would make it impossible for him ever to perform it, that left the Emperor as his fifth and last. (He never performed the Emperor.) Paul Lewis is an English pianist highly regarded as a specialist in Beethoven’s concertos (he played the first four over two concerts on Friday and Saturday). The concerto is Beethoven’s biggest and most impressive in many ways, and Lewis met them all—rich colorful arpeggios soaring to bell-like resonance at the top in the opening measures; dynamic playing of the malleable theme that gets the first movement underway, brilliant in the cadenza-like passages that obviate the need for a cadenza (Beethoven famously wrote in the score at the essential point: “Non si fa una cadenza” (Don’t play a cadenza); the sustained, long-breathed music of the slow movement; the bravura swing of the finale. The audience was gripped and demonstrated its delight with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
On Andris Nelsons’s final appearance of the Tanglewood season, he followed tradition by calling up four members of the orchestra who are retiring after long service to shake his hand and take solo bows: Martha Babcock (cello), Gregg Henegar (contrabassoon), Bo Youp Hwang (violin), and Sato Knudsen (cello).
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.