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Nelsons, Fleming, Strauss Win Hearts at Tanglewood

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Renee Fleming-performs Strauss at Tanglewood (Hilary Scott photo)

The presence of Renée Fleming in a concert program, especially if supported by a glorious Sunday afternoon, guarantees a large crowd at Tanglewood, even more so if the program features music by Richard Strauss, a composer long associated with her operatic career. Andris Nelsons chose three orchestral selections drawn from Strauss operas with vocal selections for contrast, both songs (originally composed for voice with piano accompaniment, later orchestrated by Strauss) and operatic passages.

The symphonic fantasy that Strauss crafted from the complex score of the complicated fairy-tale opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) covers a wide range of musical moods and sonorities, from the growling of the low instruments thunderously intoning a three-note phrase summoning Kaikobad, the ruler of the spirit world, to the earthly world of the Dyer and his wife, along with the intermediate level of the King and Queen, and the offstage treble voices of “unborn children.” In a suite without singers, the various levels of the plot revert to Strauss’s large, rich orchestra for expression. The dramatic, often changing polyphonic web of the score was richly projected by the Boston Symphony.

For the remainder of the first half,  Fleming offered two of Strauss’s most familiar songs, Ständchen (Serenade) and Befreit (Released), in his later orchestrations. A third song, Gesang der Apollopriesterin (Song of the Priestess of Apollo), originally composed with orchestra, is far less well known (Fleming sang with a score at hand) and, indeed, had never been performed at Tanglewood previously.

Up to the early 21st century, vocal music in BSO concerts offered texts in the program notes both in the original language and an English translation. For audience members unfamiliar with the language in which many songs were written, this was naturally a way to cue them in to what is happening emotionally in the music. The difficulty in a large hall with extinguished lights makes reading the words impossible, so most audience members don’t bother. In recent years, especially with operas, projected supertitles solved the problem. Tanglewood has offered opera supertitles before, but yesterday was the first time I’d seen them used with songs; the innovation, if that’s what it is, works very well. It is easy to watch the singer while getting a flowing translation of the song, line by line, making the expression of words and music explicit.

 In general, even Strauss’s piano-accompanied Lieder more often aspire to opera than the songs of the other great German masters of the Lied. They often offer thrilling high climaxes designed to evoke great applause, which they did. Indeed, after she had left the stage for the last time, the applause went on and on, and the audience watched the backstage door for her return. Finally, after several minutes, she re-entered with her hands out, as if she was saying, “Did you expect an encore?” Another enthusiastic round of applause led to intermission.

The second half of the program was devoted to one of the least know of Strauss’s operas—a short orchestral interlude from Intermezzo—and more extensive chunks from the most famous, Rosenkavalier.

Strauss was eager to write something light and funny after the long and complex philosophical fairy tale of Die Frau ohne Schatten, and he had an idea that he thought would be suitable—caused by a misdelivered letter intended for a conductor with a name similar to Strauss’s from a young woman asking sweetly why he hadn’t sent her a promised free ticket. Pauline Strauss opened the mail and was instantly convinced that her innocent husband was having an affair. She had actually consulted a divorce lawyer before her husband learned of the incident and clarified the situation. Strauss discussed the idea of the silly but serious misunderstanding as the basis of a modern day comedy. But thought the librettist laughed at Strauss’s recounting of the incident, he considered it too slight for his taste and he refused. The composer consulted a writer named Hermann Bahr to collaborate with him. But as Strauss outlined his idea, Bahr thought that he had already planned the situations well and suggested he write the libretto himself. Which he did.

Intermezzo is not often performed (though there is a fine video of a Glyndebourne production on YouTube). It is fascinating in its style of brief dialogue scenes (cinematic) alternating with orchestral interludes. In Sunday’s concert, the BSO played just one of those interludes, Träumerei im Kamin (Dreaming by the Fireside), representing the unhappy wife eager to have her husband back. The music is gently yearning, growing in intensity with full (but somewhat hushed) Straussian counterpoint, then slow relapsing into the original warmth.

The last sections of the program, both vocal and orchestral, offered music from Rosenkavalier. First  Fleming offered two quiet, but significant moments from Act I: the tender moment in which the Marschallin seems to realize suddenly that she is suddenly feeling old, and that the tragedy for her is that she can see it coming. (The subtitles were especially crucial to projecting the meaning of this passage to non-German speakers in the audience.) It was followed by her gentle determination to deal appropriately with the vulgar self-centered Baron Ochs; this was a very brief tidbit, but it set up the last piece on the program, the orchestral suite that Strauss crafted from the much-loved score, from the opening outburst of the horns representing the first youthful night of passion (behind the curtain!) of the Marschallin and her new, young lover Octavian. The presentation of the silver rose to the young bride, with the lightest silvery sound of the orchestra, calls up various waltzes that Strauss wrote for this very Viennese score (cheerfully not caring that the waltz had not yet been invented in the 18th-century period of the opera), and closing with music of the happy ending for the young lovers.

The audience gave another round of enthusiastic applause to Nelsons and the orchestra, which continued when the conductor left the stage, returning with Fleming for that long-delayed encore, one of Strauss’s earliest song successes, Cëcilie (Cecilia), which brought forth a final enthusiastic burst of applause from the contented crowd.

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.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. We sat in the front row and heard Fleming say, as she held out her hands, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back!”

    Comment by Bill Martin — July 8, 2024 at 6:18 pm

  2. Thanks for explaining her gracious gesture and her words; I was sitting too far back to hear.

    Comment by Steven Ledbetter — July 9, 2024 at 7:54 am

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