Beethoven’s Ninth on Sunday August 28th followed the long tradition of capping the summer festival by sending the audience into the world with this most programmatic of symphonies as a recessional. Given the hiatus of 2020-21, its reappearance carried a life affirming value.
Before the players took their places, the audience got treated to a main-stage premier of Charles Ives’s Psalm 90 for soprano, tenor, chorus and organ. A powerful composition oscillating between the tonal harmony and the chaos of cluster tones, it seemed a suitable opener leading up to Beethoven Ninth and its culmination in a different brand of theology. The Tanglewood Festival chorus under the baton of James Burton delivered the shifts between harmonious singing to chaotic hubbub of an overexcited congregation and back with remarkable clarity of intonation. Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker and tenor Ben Bliss added soulful solos that helped appreciate personal significance of the piece to Ives. For the mostly soft and lugubrious organ part, John Finney attended to the Shed’s rarely heard Æolian Skinner. Aside from its solo exposure in the introduction, it mostly underpinned with low-C rumble.
Michael Tilson Thomas then took the podium to preside over the birth of the most familiar of all symphonies from the elemental soup of its first movement. He started at a reasonably brisk pace, emphasizing harmonious rather than the primordial. The orchestra executed flawlessly with a perfect collaboration, a fine-tuned clockwork perfectly handing off themes between registers. There were appropriate dynamic contrasts of course, and mood shifts, but an unperturbed Olympian spirit officiated.
The scherzo went lively without going crazy. As a matter of fact, everything seemed to come together harmoniously this Sunday. Dionysian frenzy hardly managed to show its head under the partially sunny skies of a mild Lenox afternoon. The gorgeous variations of the slow movement carried forward as a pure balm, with MTT beautifully leading sections by signaling some to hold steady while leading others into their gently lilting line. And even the drama of the fanfare that calls the hero away from the private bliss and back into heroism sounded polite rather than disruptive.
The same spirit of happy collaboration and the golden middle ground carried into the last movement. Even the terror fanfare so important to Wagnerian mythology failed to terrorize. Even the ecosystem collaborated in a peculiar way: when an annoying iPhone ringtone came from the audience, it did so right at the emergence of the Scherzo quotation, so it did not sour the mood by its playful interference.
Then came the double bases projecting their primordial might in the first full exposition of the Freude theme, followed by joyous variation led by the violas — and the world of kindness and beauty arrived in full. The proto-Wagnerian monster made its second and more serious appearance, but only to introduce the powerful voice of Dashon Burton — a beautiful instrument used to a great dramatic effect in “Oh Freunde nicht diese Töne” —followed by an immediate reminder of what we so sorely missed in the pandemic years: the live sound of a well-tuned and perfectly articulating Tanglewood Chorus. The quartet of Jacquelyn Stucker, Kelley O’Connor, Ben Bliss and Dashon Burton joined to add a thrilling operatic dimension. The ‘Turkish variation’ came after an appropriate moment of suspense, and while the percussion sounded somewhat subdued, Bliss’s voice added the anticipated excitement. More types of harmony were coming from every direction, soon after the verse specifically placing the Creator above the stars, a chorus of chickadees interfered to summon the wider world above. Götterfunken sparkled from every direction, not the least from the spirited singing of the quartet. The double fugue rose mightily, and the palpable excitement of the coda gave a tremendous emotional boost.
This music still delivers a jolt. It doesn’t have to spill over the top; an intelligent and balanced treatment is potent enough, but it is needed as much as ever. There is inevitability in the moment when we have to leave the lush grounds full of robust harmonies, clear incantations, chilled wine and delicacies on the picnic tables, when we politely file out from the manicured parking lots and turn unto route 183. All sorts of millions lurk out there waiting to be embraced.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.