Tanglewood extends the immersion of some concert nights by offering preludes to the main event in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Friday’s prelude concert in Ozawa Hall featured the all-volunteer Tanglewood Festival Chorus in works by Roxanna Panufnik, Randall Thompson and Michael Tippett. Chorus conductor James Burton introduced the pieces, underlining each composer’s desire to inspire a richer, more tolerant and committed humanism.
Panufnik’s Love Endureth, on Psalm 135, aimed at “creating bridges.” It brought medieval Sephardic chants to new life in a stunningly successful hybrid sound enriched by the elegant voice of soprano Emma Robertson. Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom, if less fresh musically, shone in inventive moments of serenity and hope (“and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands”). Tippett’s Five Spirituals from A Child of Our Time, composed in the wake of Kristallnacht and aimed at resisting oppression, enlisted soloists Amanda Majeski (soprano), J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Costello (solo tenor) and Jongmin Park (solo bass) for a distinctly British rendering of familiar American songs. Of the five spirituals, Go down, Moses, seemed most powerful, thanks to the haunting resonance of the last syllable of “pharaoh” and to Park’s deeply solemn voice. Tippett’s Five Spirituals will be performed again on Sunday, before Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, as a way of celebrating the Brotherhood of man theme that rings out in Beethoven’s ode: To Joy.
A short stroll across campus amidst the lanterns and candles of picknickers led us to the Koussevitzky Shed for the evening’s concert by the BSO under Andris Nelsons’s baton. In sharp contrast to Thompson, Tippett and Panufnik, Camille Saint-Saëns championed art for art’s sake, by which he meant that music, like poetry and painting, constitutes a sufficient aim in itself, without ulterior purpose. Heard in sequence, Carlos Simon’s Four Black American Dances, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian, and George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F worked synergistically to give not only new meaning but new reality to Art for Art’s sake.
Simon himself briefly introduced his Four Black American Dances, thanking the BSO for the commission and the musicians for their musicianship. From the start, I heard brilliance – a masterful grasp of soundscapes snatched from afar and from oblivion. Simon’s work opened with “Ring Shout”, a once popular practice among enslaved Africans, juxtaposing smooth strings and ecstatic brass, floor-stomping and lyrical woodwinds. An ensuing bittersweet “Waltz”, tinged with ambivalence and secretly blues-y, made beautiful use of muted trombones to fill us with fin-de-siècle languor, mournful and problematic as is the notion of cultural assimilation to which it alludes. Fresh possibilities emerge with “Tap!” ― vigorous, athletic, percussive, evoking Cab Calloway and Count Basie to dodge obstacles and navigate complex spaces by developing a new language, never heard before, but rich with experience. The final “Holy Dance,” described by Simon as a tribute to his Black Pentecostal background, unleashed a vivifying energy made up of a myriad shards of individual voices conjuring terror by speaking in tongues, embracing diversity and celebrating a revitalized, expanded, joyous “Ring Shout” that thinks globally by acting locally. Simon indeed received shouts of joy and acclaim from the audience ― proof that he had captured our spirits.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet came on stage in a festive jacket and exotic necklace for Saint-Saëns’s Egyptian. The composer himself served as soloist for the 1896 first performance marking the 50 anniversary of his début at the Salle Pleyel. Saint-Saëns grew up immersed in Egyptology and orientalism. Whether or not Théophile Gautier’s best-selling love-story Le Roman de la momie (1853) kindled young Camille’s imagination, the composer developed a lifelong love for Egypt, travelling there often as well as to Algeria. Returning to Paris after many years of absence following his mother’s death, he created his own veritable homecoming, prefaced by a poem to his mother.
Nelsons and Thibaudet gave us a gentle, lyrical account, yet they imbued it throughout with a distinctive intensity that made it riveting. Thibaudet opened the first movement Allegro animato with acute sensitivity and rhythmic eloquence, soon to be matched by loveliness in the orchestra when it responded with the second theme. The pair achieved a dynamic equilibrium through scrupulous attention to detail, shifting from meditative moments to quasi-emotional moments without ever loosening restraint. Thibaudet’s lusciously smooth arpeggios in the coda remained lovingly bridled.
In the ensuing Andante, Thibaudet established the exotic orientalist mood from the start, opening a space of travel and dream, discovery and estrangement. Yet here too an aesthetic of restraint prevailed, transmuting the elements of experience into art. Floating along the Nile at dusk in this transmuted musical form, we delighted in the strands of a Nubian love song and beyond it in the mysterious croaking of frogs and whisps of finger-cymbals, but only sensorially and spiritually, without any need for literal presence. The music, in effect, created a timeless experience of ancient beauty for us – a beauty that eludes the rough wear-and-tear of physical travel. Is the Nile any less experienced for being experienced through art? Against a mysterious ostinato in the orchestra, Thibaudet’s concluding scale ascending upward to a softly held A brought us out of our reverie by gentle steps to a serene close.
And to Paris! The final movement, marked Allegro Agitato, has often been interpreted as a stormy seascape, but Nelsons and Thibaudet unmistakably identified the seascape in question to be the seascape of Paris, with its proud motto of Fluctuat nec mergitur (“tossed by the waves but doesn’t sink”). Thibaudet emphasized boulevardier nonchalance, the lights and enticements of urban energy, carnavalesque and capacious. The figure of the flâneur seeking out beauty against all odds and all attempts at utilitarian reduction, resolved firmly and boldly in triumphant survival. Nec mergitur! Nelsons and Thibaudet concluded with the sheer glory of bringing it all back home after fifty years of strife and adventure to a Paris reborn from its ashes of 1870. Sublimated into art, the triumphant finale delivered Saint-Saëns’s vaster message that Life itself is lived for Life’s sake.
Commissioned by Walter Damrosch for his New York Symphony Orchestra, Gershwin’s Concerto in F was originally titled “New York Concerto”. Gershwin later wrote “This showed great confidence on his part, as I had never written anything for symphony before”. He added that he had to buy “four or five books on musical structure to find out what the concerto form actually was.” Thibaudet returned to the stage in a new jacket, perhaps hoping to renew his energy after a towering rendition of the Saint-Saëns. After the orchestra’s dramatic Broadway-style “intro”, pounded out by the always-wonderful timpanist Timothy Genis, Thibaudet entered the Allegro with a sweetly jazzy and blues-y first theme, his body fully engaged. Nelsons used dynamics to emphasize tempi, creating a sort of open-ended variety as Time dilated, contracted, rushed ahead, idled, swirled and cracked, with sparkle added by percussionist J. William Hudgins. City life for its own beauty? The wood block added a marvelous timbre to the bustling energy of the timpani, as though boundaries between music and actual footsteps had been blurred.
Nelsons gave ample space for Thibaudet to unfold the second movement Adagio in a meandering, leisurely way, reaching the outer limits of coherence. Lyrical trumpet work by Thomas Rolfs, gentle strings and piano evoked the City in repose, while also alive and a bit restless in the dead of night. When Thibaudet rekindled momentum and activity, nocturnal torpor dissipated, ushered away lovingly by the solo violin of Acting Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon.
Composer David Conte wrote to me of his admiration for the Gershwin Concerto in F, especially the last movement: “One of the best 20th-century rondo movements — he revitalizes the form. I love particularly the jauntiness of the 2nd theme, which comes back toward the end in a very “maestoso” character that seems the definition of Hollywood glamour in the best sense – a mix of high romance, grandeur, and an unabashedly and uniquely American character.” Thibaudet’s and Nelsons’s rendering reminded me how right Damrosch was to recognize Gershwin’s roots in late Romantic Russia. Before letting it settle into a jazzier sound, Nelsons gave a stormy, Tchaikovskian power to the Rondo theme, implying a fiercer experience of New York as Gotham, gritty and full of danger. Against this musical acknowledgment of darkness, the concluding Salute triumphed by serving to embrace the multiple aspects of the City in all of its challenges and fervor, pitfalls and promises.
Despite the audience’s insistent clapping, Thibaudet did not perform an encore. My sense is that he had given us his all.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.