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BSO Opens Tanglewood with High Energy

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Andris Nelsons, the BSO, and Daniil Trifonov sparked the wide-ranging 2023 Tanglewood season with high energy in a mostly Russian (plus Marsalis) program.

Wynton Marsalis has been a leading jazz trumpeter much of his life, the best-known member of a very musical family. Most people, however, are not aware that, in addition to being a top soloist and director of ensembles (including the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), he is also himself a composer of wide range. In 1997 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his oratorio Blood on the Fields, the first musical score with a jazz orientation to win the prize. Further works include string quartets and symphonies, and a number of concertos for varied solo instruments.

Friday night’s concert opened with his ringing six-minute score for 15 brass instruments, timpani, and four percussionists, entitled Herald, Holler, and Hallelujah. Commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, it has been performed by half a dozen American orchestras and one German ensemble. It seems to have developed a place in the repertory since its premiere 18 months ago.  The piece is based on a poem of that name in which Marsalis suggests Dantesque sounds and moods; while not explicitly naming Dante’s regions of the afterlife, he hints at an underworld in jazz imagery brightening to heavenly evocations: “Here comes old Buddy Bolden calling his children home.” The BSO brass rose to the occasion with superb ensemble and brilliant voicing, while the timpani and percussion were gloriously assertive.

Nelsons and Trifonov receive standing ovation at Tanglewood opening night (Hilary Scott phooto)

Prokofiev composed his Third Piano Concerto over a fairly extensive period of time, while traveling from Revolutionary Russia to the United States, then to Paris, where he finished it in 1921; the composer premiered it in Chicago. It begins with a wonderful lyricism (a quality that gradually came to dominate elements of Prokofiev’s later music, especially the ballets. But after this gentle beginning with woodwinds and a scurrying preparation in the strings, the soloist enters with dynamic fast music, often calling for pounding chords (for which the steely fingered Trifonov certainly showed the requisite muscularity), at some places hinting at Prokofiev’s frequent suggestions of Stravinsky, almost a decade his senior, whom Prokofiev often sought to outdo in rhythmic violence and dissonance (though never quite doing so), and suddenly reverting to gentle lyricism. Both pianist and orchestra gave full measure to both these expressive opposing forces.

For an encore, Trifonov stuck with Prokofiev but chose a delicate dance movement, a Gavotte, that the composer had transcribed from his ballet Cinderella. This was as crisp and clean and light as much of the concerto has been thunderous.

For the close, Nelsons and the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s breakthrough piece, the Fourth Symphony, the first score he dedicated to Nadezhda von Meck, who became his patroness for nearly 14 years, freeing him from financial worries and creating a remarkable correspondence that reveals much about the composer’s life, compositions, and attitude—all on the firm but unusual understanding that they must never meet in person. The Fourth thus became “our” symphony in their correspondence. It bears an original harmonic and structural layout, but it grabs the attention of the audience at the very beginning with a forceful fanfare that suggests dark possibilities every time it recurs. The other three movements are lighter in character, allowing Tchaikovsky’s melodic grace to appear and to receive full value; the second evokes Russian folk song, especially in its plangent oboe solo. The third movement playfully separates the sections of the orchestra—first strings in a lively pizzicato, then woodwinds in a bright Trio, alternating with a miniature march figure in brass and percussion. The finale evokes another Russian folk song with a series of variations. Nelsons clearly shaped these diverse moods, —light-hearted, somber, relaxed or driven —so that the final return of the bold opening fanfare brought the strength of Tchaikovsky’s vision to a compelling close.

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.

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