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Tanglewood’s First Sunday: Two Premieres and Brahms


Julia Bullock, Andris Nelsons, and Jesse Montgomery (Hilary Scott photo)

The first Sunday afternoon concert of this Tanglewood season featured a beautifully balanced program from Andris Nelsons, consisting of two new or recent works from composers commissioned by the BSO, and the Brahms violin concerto with Hilary Hahn. The two new works were both by relatively young composers who have already been making names for themselves (and had already had works appearing on BSO programs, which led to commissions for these new pieces. Both composers discussed their works with the audience.

Iman Habibi (b. 1985) was born in Tehran, Iran, but moved with his family to British Columbia by way of Turkey in 2003. Though his parents hoped he would become an engineer, like his father, he was determined to be a musician, a course that was possible in Canada in a way that had been officially frowned upon in Iran. He began his college studies in Douglas College, in Vancouver, then transferred to the University of British Columbia for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees before continuing to the doctorate at the University of Michigan.

His instrumental music is often inspired by or responsive to poetic or symbolic texts or ideas. Earlier in the week he had offered an introduction to another new piece, a duo for piano and violin commissioned by BSO violinist Lucia Lin, with a co-commission from the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. This duet, Offering of Water, is a response to an old Persian prayer to water for its role in giving and sustaining life, and the increasing concern with its pollution in the modern world.

The new orchestral work, Zhiân, composed 20 years after his emigration from Iran, is a response to continuing difficulties in his homeland, particularly in recent months the death of Masa (Zhina or Jina) Amini and other young women. The Kurdish form of her name, given as the title of the work, became part of a motto of political protest: Woman, Life, Freedom. Habibi’s intense score weaves  dark and light colors with a lush orchestration that maintains a continuity developed starkly contrasting texts, which attracted a vivid audience response.

Composer Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981), a violinist (with extensive experience in the PUBLIQuartet and the Catalyst Quartet), grew up in an artistic family on New York’s Lower East Side. Her father was a musician and her mother a theater performer. She was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 2020-21. She is on the faculty of Bard Conservatory and is in the middle of three seasons as Mead Composer in Residence at the Chicago Symphony.

Not surprisingly, many of her works feature richly conceived string parts. Five Freedom Songs, set five Negro spirituals drawn from an old collection published just after the end of the Civil War, “Slave Songs of the United States.” She conceived the work for voice, percussion, and string orchestra with the singer who performed it, Julia Bullock, both women drawing on their shared heritage. The five songs outline a progression from the sweetly celebratory “My Lord, what a morning,” “I want to go home,” “My father, how long,” “Lay dis body down,” and “The day of judgment,” which evoked the homeland by using a West African drumming pattern as the refrain. The verbal clarity and emotive passion of Bullock’s rendition made converts of us all.

In Brahms’s Violin Concerto, with the always welcome Hilary Hahn, the interplay between soloist, conductor, and orchestra charmed our eyes. Hahn clearly paid close attention to the introduction before responding. She entered with warmly expressive shaping, and Nelsons induced the orchestra to support in kind. The rocking gentleness of the rich opening continued in the pensive oboe solo, while the “gypsy” flash of the finale made for a brilliant close from all hands. Audience rapture induced the soloist to encore with her friend Steven Banks’s “Through my Mother’s Eyes.”

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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