Music and Ballet Criticism
Both Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for violin, piano, and strings and his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Op. 21, composed when he was but 13 and 17, were given dashing interpretations by conductor Susanna Mälkki—the former with violinist Joshua Bell, and pianist Jeremy Denk in the Tanglewood Shed on August 21, 2010. Revealing the brilliant portent of Mendelssohn’s childhood and giving a critical perspective of his growth into a worthy Beethoven successor came in the second half of the program, dedicated to Beethoven’s music. Here, Bell’s performance of Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 for violin and orchestra, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Op. 60, offered striking contrasts in substance and mood.
We witnessed in this concert both that wild tempos in the hands of virtuoso players can stir excitement in the absence of great musical substance and that frustration can come when a great orchestra, accustomed to male conductors, faces a woman on its podium. Along with the revelations and discoveries in this provocative concert came interesting questions of orchestral professionalism and leadership that bumped against the patriarchal values constraining the careers of female conductors.
Susanna Mälkki, substituting for James Levine, could hardly appear more different than the BSO’s recuperating music director. Where he is confined to his chair, limited in the range of his gestures, she is a lithe, graceful, youthful presence on the podium. Where he is cerebral, preferring subtle gestures of the baton, she is “a conducting animal” of the Gustavo Dudamel species who expresses ideas and emotions with her fingers, hands, face, hair, torso, and legs. Where he is ambiguous in his directions, pulling from each individual player the best that they think he wants from them, she is vigorously direct and steadfast, even in the face of active resistance to her tempos and dynamic indications. Where he is a male conductor at the pinnacle of his career (notwithstanding his physical infirmities), she is a modern woman on her way up, unencumbered by anything but the preferences and prejudices of a tradition-ridden profession.
The daring acceleration with which Mälkki addressed the ethereal beginning of Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared to confuse the orchestra, which held back. She increased the amplitude of her hand and arm movements. Still they held back. She assumed a military posture, employing strong vertical indications to signal the downbeats of the 2/4 meter and pulling the second-beat accents in the succeeding passage with dramatic up-lifts. The beat couldn’t have been clearer, but the orchestra was flaccid, and the quality of the attacks, especially in the strings, was ragged.
The dense and shifting orchestral colors emerged convincingly in response to Mälkki’s confident sweeps of her arms and delicate conjuring of her fingers, however, as the initial section of the work developed through a splendid rallentendo, approaching its penultimate D-minor cadence before returning to the shimmering tonalities of the beginning. This left no doubt that the BSO could, and would, play for her if it wanted to.
An unexpected auditory event presented itself next, signaling that for all her expertise in contemporary music (Mälkki leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris), the conductor respected what Mendelssohn had in mind with regard to the orchestra of his day. BSO third trombone Douglas Yeo sounded his ophicleide, the unfamiliar predecessor of the modern orchestral tuba that is usually cast in this piece. It was as if a fat French horn had descended down an octave and a half below its low F. Yeo’s tone was focused, resonant, a bit thin for the tuba taste, but exquisitely blended with the horns and contrabasses, its slightly nasal quality adding just the right amount of distinction to this important, exposed melody. It was a marvelous touch, evoking the zany spirit of the “play within a play” of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Mendelssohn then explored his developing identity as a romantic in the lovely harmonies that suffused the final passages, featuring another vivace, now appropriately controlled in the strings, that brought in the woodwinds, first in F minor, then on a downward harmonic escalator that flowed in magic thirds through D minor to Bb major to G minor and after a tentative C 7th, to an F-minor cadence. In the end, an affecting, sad, descending scale was repeated by the first violins and then the horns before the woodwinds brought the piece to a soft and satisfying close. It was a stirring performance, to which the audience responded with appropriate enthusiasm. The back-story seemed not to matter. How lovely it is that music is so ephemeral!
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk brought virtuoso technique to bear on the pubertal pretensions of the Mendelssohn Concerto for violin and piano. The opening of this adolescent adventure sounded as if it came from the composer’s counterpoint class. The “orchestra” here was more a figure of speech than a foundational platform, offering chords and comments beneath the serviceable channeling of a three-note phrase into canonical and fugal configurations. Bach it was not. But Bell and Denk pulled every available emotion from the melodies, such as they were, emphasizing shifting tonalities with graceful dynamics and velvety legatos.
Then came fun! Mälkki, Bell, and Denk whizzed around several octaves’ worth of scales, the two instrumentalists cuing one another with a subtlety that approached telepathy on chiseled phrases, stunning volume shifts, and effortless streaks of unisons and thirds. If the exchanges between the violin and piano seemed absurdly literal and the thematic development sounded primitive, what the piece lacked in structure it gained in breathtaking performance. Back-to-back short cadenzas culminated in a lyrical rubato section for solo piano before the breakneck tempo reappeared. Mendelssohn and the violinist friend for whom the piece was written obviously had enjoyed this chase, stirring a quick quotation of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” (the popular last movement of his Piano Sonata No. 11) into a recapitulation of the 3-note motif (D, E, A) from the first movement.
Here, Mälkki held it all together, and the orchestra played gamely along. Now there was no obvious backing and filling. The crowd loved it, and many smiles were shared in the intermission that followed.
The Beethoven Romance was a sweet affair, its rhythms and accents guided gently by Mälkki’s hands, arms, and torso. Bell brought a balletic expressivity and his own subtle movements to the arching melodies with controlled nuances and a warm temperament reminiscent of Isaac Stern. Despite the searching, forward-looking brilliance of his original cadenzas, there was not a shred of show or pretence. Here was a serious performance of mature music, as it was meant to be.
The Fourth Symphony began with a sense of mystery. Mälkki took the opening tempo very slowly, giving emphasis to the bold harmonic transits — those magic thirds again! — from Bb minor to Gb to Eb, in which Beethoven pointed the way through Mendelssohn and Schumann to Wagner and 20th-century composition.
The drama was enhanced by Mälkki’s impressively articulated accents. In no sense did the use of her body appear to be disingenuous or inappropriately sensuous, although her femininity could not be denied. This was music making of a very high order, making effective use of a fine repertory of expressive tools.
An exaggerated fortissimo to the first movement allegro gave still more excitement, with blasts of tympani and bursts of trumpets. The mood calmed, and Mälkki focused on the inner voices from the woodwinds. Like a restrained ballerina, she summoned from principal flute Elizabeth Rowe a high and shining solo. Shakes of Mälkki’s hair added a certain swing to Beethoven’s rhythmic syncopations.
Now the musicians were playing absolutely responsively, with mighty crescendos, gossamer string and woodwind pianos, and impressively controlled accents from Timothy Genis’s tympani and the two matched flugelhorns. The dotted-eighth rhythms were signaled by Mälkki’s subtle counterpunches and torso-flicks, yielding inescapably to satisfying orchestral synchrony. Sustaining the emphasis on tonal variety, she hushed the violins with a quick application of finger to lip. Down they came, with alacrity. She urged Beethoven’s sfortzandos with total-body pulses, in which she pushed forward with her hands while arching slightly backward. At the same time, her athleticism was restrained both by her relentless focus on the task at hand and by her costume, a modest tuxedo with a simple leather collar. The music was her focus.
The last movement was a rapid tour de force, wild, and yet controlled. In the swirling violins over tremolo contrabasses, the punctuation of diatonic harmonies with diminished chords, and the buildup to the crashing Bb ending, the full palette of Beethoven’s tortured emotions was exposed. Mälkki had led us through this transit from childhood through adulthood in what felt like minutes. It was intense, enthralling, and revelatory.
Your reviewer searched in vain through Gunther Schuller’s 1997 magnum opus, The Compleat Conductor, for any reference to female conductors. But Schuller’s courageous, indeed relentless, insistence that no one has the right to fiddle with the composer’s intentions, led him to adroit and powerful criticism of such conducting icons as Tanglewood favorite Leonard Bernstein. Schuller documents that although Bernstein himself talked and wrote that music came first, he violated the principle in obvious ways when he was standing on the podium. Schuller underlines a set of paramount conducting values that include honesty, expressivity, respect, and thoughtful reflection.
In this spirit, after a concert like this one, one is constrained to ask these questions:
Your reviewer has no answers to these questions except to say that sexism is alive and well in the world of music and that the time has come for female conductors to take their rightful places on the podiums of the world’s greatest orchestras, including this one. Yet another 19th-century European prejudicial tradition should yield to contemporary respect for human rights and gender equality, and to the creative power of cultural diversity.
August 24, 2010
Inspired by the culture of France and the Jewish diasporas, the Boston Symphony Orchestra began its concert of August 20 with Mozart’s dense and compact Symphony No. 31 in D (“Paris”) and proceeded through two moving works for soprano solo, Devrath Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, to Ravel’s coloristic concerto for orchestra, Ma Mere l’Oye (“Mother Goose Suite”, in the complete version). Dawn Upshaw’s modest stage manner belied her powerful emotionality and vocal virtuosity, bringing tears to the eyes and cheers to the heart in her knowing evocations of love and loss, and the charming intimacies of country life. Ludovic Morlot treated the stirring Mozart meters with a startling economy of movement, but embraced the subsequent romantic works with passionate spirit and expansive gesture.
The allegro first movement of the Mozart was sprung like a clock, sounding regular alarms of shooting octaves from the highest to the lowest strings (played with remarkable precision by the contrabass ensemble, led on this night by Lawrence Wolfe), but controlled both by brisk, steady rhythms and the fierce logic of a gorgeous counterpoint. Merlot’s subtle cues pulled out the inner lines; he emphasized the shape of the longer phrases by bringing up the volume of the two matched, mellow flugelhorns.
In the second movement, the 3/4 andante under Morlot’s baton became not so much a walking meter than a waltz. A striking series of four-measure exchanges unfolded between the strings and the woodwinds, telescoping to two- and then one-measure conversations. In but a few moments, the Shed was transformed to the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Keisuke Wakao’s oboe and Elizabeth Rowe’s flute sang together as one, swept away. When Mozart received this commission, what could the young fellow from Vienna have been thinking about the predilections of the French?
With its rapid piano strings and sudden forte bursts from the flugelhorns at the start of the third movement, Mozart, in 1778, anticipated Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony by 13 years. (Whether or not Papa Haydn was a thief is not the issue. What great composer stands alone?) Here, one could perceive the compositional sources of Mozart’s titanic influence: his ability to make melody magic of every short succession of notes, to propel rhythmic ambiguities through counterpoint, to subtly push inner lines into overlapping phrases of tensile strength, and to fearlessly assert complex rhythms, bold dynamics, and heady harmonic transitions.
When, at last, the splendidly synchronized arpeggios in the flugelhorns returned harmonic tonality convincingly to D major, there was delight, satisfaction, and even relief. Here was 250-year-old music brought to contemporary relevance by a sympathetic conductor in front of a splendid orchestra.
Dawn Upshaw appeared to a warm welcome in a flowing, turquoise jacket and matching scarf over slim, black pants. Her easy manner and lack of pretension captured beautifully the simple eloquence of the folk lyrics in the Canteloube songs. But her singing! This was world-class stuff, in range, color, timbre, and daring. Upshaw’s voice spans the soprano range with an ermine warmth. Without much ado, she adds depth and variety apposite to the lyrics: here an edge of laughter, there the verge of tears, and in the Sprechstimme that the Canteloube calls for, an unaffected, highly inflected human voice, and then a stunning emulation of a cuckoo’s cries. What force she adds for expressive nuance appears as the vocal equivalent of burnished wood, a timbre that falls somewhere between the bass clarinet and the oboe. If there were a perfect singer for the huge emotional range called for in the works of in this evening’s program, it was surely she.
The “Spinning Girl” in the first song, when asked for a kiss, gives two, and whirls through a vocal gyre from low E to high A. The repeated nonsense refrain, “Ti lirou . . . la la diri” was elevated by twinkles of flute and piccolo, capturing in form and fancy the dizzying delight of first love.
Who writes songs like “Run, Dog, Run!” these days? This little stunner would arguably have better served the climax of the 1995 movie, Babe, than the final movement of Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony. Absent the colossal impact, “Run, Dog, Run!” shimmered equally in animation and charm. Upshaw’s portrayal of the drama of a runaway cow, a shepherd, and a terrier, in swoops and yells and guttural barks, leapt over the rushing winds and dashing strings of Canteloube’s orchestration.
With such guidance, this doggie hardly needed a password to help him with his task. (Musicological trivia question: What was the password that Babe the pig used to herd the sheep into the corral, enabling him to win the grand prize of Scotland’s herding contest, not by being mean, but by asking nicely? Answer, cued to the piano arpeggios that herald that first, crashing organ chord, uttered gently: “Ba, Ram, You!” This was arguably the finest moment of French movie music since Wilhelmenia Fernandez sang Alfredo Catalani’s “Aria from ‘La Wally’” in the 1981 cult classic, Diva.)
The repeated comforting phrases of “Lullaby,” woven into exquisite, soft woodwind textures, evoked maternal frustration as well as love. Finally, the baby drifted off to sleep, after Upshaw observed tenderly, “It is coming at last, the lazy one! It is coming, here it is! And the baby is going to sleep… Ah!” After a song about putting a baby to bed, there came another about getting somebody special out of bed. Only after Pierre returned from multiple trips to the fair with Margaret’s “chemise, and the petticoat, and the laced bodice, and her kerchief, and her panties and her hat,” would she consider arising for the day. A delicious mix of harmony captured Pierre’s complex emotions. Circling around A-minor tonalities, his mood abruptly changed when Margaret at last exclaimed, “How pretty I look!” The song quickly resolved in a bright A-major cadence when, finally, “Margaret got out of bed!” Poor Pierre! Happy Pierre! Enabling Pierre!
“The Cuckoo” sang from a tree “in bloom, all red” to music that reflected a fabulous metaphor: “Certainly if all the cuckoos were to wear little bells, they would sound like five hundred trumpets.” Here the trumpets surely shone, with lots of chirpy staccatos, dissonant cackles, and at the end repeated calls of “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” Upshaw’s sense of humor came across especially pleasingly in her understatement of the over-the-top text.
The scene turned darker and more serious in the first of the Golijov songs, a lullaby, translated to and sung in the Yiddish of his forebears, with an unusual musical structure: soprano solo, soprano with orchestra, and orchestra solo. Upshaw began the song a cappella, totally exposed and precisely in tune, with the words, “Close your eyes and you shall go to that sweet land all dreamers know.” The subtle orchestral accompaniment lay down simple harmonies on a carpet of thick woodwind textures, with echoes of the vocal line sounding in the alto flute, contrabass clarinet, and violas. A romantic harmonic progression (C major, A major, E major, repeated again and again) underpinned this knowing expression of maternal comfort.
Then tension mounted with a keening melody, voiced in scalloping circles by the first violins, counterpoised by a rapid pizzicato passage in the contrabasses and bursts of linear lines in minor keys in the mid-range of the French horns. Their harsh tritones resolved to perfect fourths in a sudden, minor cadence. After the sweetness and peace of the lullaby came an augury of tragedy.
Yiddish changed to Spanish in the following affecting song, “Moon, Colorless.” Once again, Upshaw started a cappella, sounding a stunning, perfect E. Joined by strings in an expansive, rubato treatment of Rosalia de Castro’s poem, she asked the moon “If you know where Death has her dark mansion, tell her to take my body and soul together to a place where I won’t be remembered. …” Following a sweeping lament by Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, alternating pizzicato phrases between the cellos and the contrabasses underpinned a complex soprano melody that rose through Latin American and Klezmer inflections to a high Bb before resolving on the major third of a clear C-major chord. The sad ambiguity of human hopelessness in the face of a glowing heavenly body was resolved with optimism. Only through music can mixed feelings such as these be expressed, and shared, so deeply.
Two spare poems by Emily Dickinson closed this portion of the program. These, too, were songs of love and the transitory nature of human existence, embedding intimate feelings in soaring celestial images. These phrases could not have been better suited to Golijov’s and Upshaw’s artistry. His music was among his best: straightforward, simply and carefully worked, with clear voicings of the instruments (again with emphasis on texture, enriched by high contrabassoon and alto flute), accessible harmonies, and honest, heartfelt emotion. Her singing was thoughtful, nuanced, and moving.
Maestro Morlot’s “Mother Goose” focused on the kaleidoscopic qualities of Ravel’s orchestration. This is really a concerto for orchestra, and star turns were taken by oboe Keisuke Wakao, summoning rapid changes of mood and leading us up a staircase of romantic harmonies, and by piccolo Cynthia Myers, principal clarinet William Hudgins, and contrabassoon Gregg Henegar, who handed off a long melody that developed from a muscular, low Gb to the splendid lower register of Elizabeth Rowe’s flute. Lush, muted violins re-introduced Wakao’s oboe and gave emphasis to the honeyed quality of Robert Sheena’s English horn that built and ultimately directed all the woodwinds to a glorious section chorale.
After three statements of a four-pulse birdcall, played with charm by one of the percussionists alongside companionable chirping from the piccolo, the muted strings and oboe returned. Jessica Zhou’s harp, along with the celesta and xylophone gave sizzle and sparkle to the “Fairy Garden” movement, with echoes of its ethereal, pentatonic tonalities whispered by the alto flute and the piccolo. A powerful crescendo propagated shards of melody across the woodwinds and brass to a stirring restatement of the principal theme from the “Empress of the Pagoda” movement, punctuated resoundingly by horns and gong.
Your reviewer’s notes at this point in the Ravel include the phrase, “totally unlike listening to a recording, the shadings, the tonal variety!” This was one of those moments to rethink one’s listening habits. Really to appreciate music, there’s no substitute for listening to the real thing in live performance. In this deeply satisfying evening, Ludovic Morlot, Dawn Upshaw, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave us a magisterial alternative to the CD, the MP3 or any media player.
August 20, 2010
The spirits of Edward “Duke” Ellington, William “Count” Basie, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Art Tatum hovered gently over a splendidly satisfying concert in the Tanglewood Shed on August 15. Bounding rhythms of 1920s and 1930s jazz inspired both the afternoon’s composers and Maestro Robert Spano, a fine choice to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra through the many delights and sensibilities of this quintessentially American music. Four works by three composers framed the tour, beginning and ending with the greatest synthesizer of jazz and classics, George Gershwin (An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, soloist). The other offerings were by the redoubtable composer and jazz scholar Gunther Schuller (Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee) and long-time Tanglewood faculty member Leonard Bernstein (Prelude Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz ensemble, with the BSO’s Thomas Martin, soloist.)
An American in Paris led off with typical Gershwin pentatonic themes. Virtuosic solo work by English horn Robert Sheena gave, in just a few nuanced notes, the fulcrum that shifted the balance from traffic jam to blues. Breathy melismas by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs infused the “Bess, You Is My Woman” theme with deep passion. Using subtle dynamics rather than smears, principal tuba Mike Roylance invested the blue thirds and sevenths with sad poignancy in his long, rubato solo.
Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee evoked the sound and spirit of bandleader and composer Duke Ellington in his musical description of the Klee drawing, “Little Blue Devil.”
As Larry Wolfe walked the pizzicato bass line and woodwind and trombone choirs riffed over a swinging cymbal rhythm, an extended cup-muted trumpet solo summoned the marvelous horn talk of James “Bubber” Miley. In the other movements, idiosyncratic orchestral settings and subtly articulated contrapuntal lines created delicious, shifting harmonic effects.
In the movement entitled “Abstract Trio,” flutter-tonguing flutes and streaking clarinets danced over a softly growling French horn. Klee’s curious “Twittering Machine” squeaked around, bearing a chattering aviary of muted trumpets, woodblock, piccolo, and sliding trombones, all immersed in a warm atmosphere of tremolo strings, and superbly animated by Spano’s ratcheting stick-work
In “Arabian Town,” we eavesdropped on a conversation between BSO principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, who stood within the natural resonating chamber formed by the portico before the left stage doors, and a male oboist who was seated before a harem of second violinists. After an introduction of affecting, quietly resonating string chords, Rowe brought a pensive melody to life with dynamic inflections and ornaments that suggested cool nights in the desert. Bringing the volume down to pianissimo, she held the house rapt. (This was one of those rare moments of absolute audience silence in the Shed.) Then suddenly, the oboe, in flagrant braggadocio, interrupted her. But standing her ground, she continued with wounded sadness, uttering soft trills that elevated her poetry to an ethereal plane, repeating, and repeating again scalloped lines in her lovely middle range, each time differently, with variations in volume, vibrato, and middle-Eastern intervals. Sustained strings and syncopated tympani appeared to affirm the logic of her point of view. Then the belligerent returned, loudly proclaiming, with the help of one of the kept violins and a convincing emulation of an oud, that his would be the last word. His solo leapt and crept around before settling into a menacing, low A drone. But ultimately the flute prevailed, never raising her sweet voice, considering and then maintaining a measure of feminine autonomy over gently bowed strings. Magic!
“Pastorale” evoked the subtle colors of agrarian villages. Brief melodies and contrapuntal encounters from clarinet, English horn, and French horn led to a splendid clarinet cadenza by BSO principal William Hudgins that circled down into the lowest range and spiraled upward in stunning arpeggios, greeting the piccolo in animated conversation. This joyful solo and interplay evoked the tension between individualism and community, tempered by mutual respect and the collective need to survive, that holds villages together. The economy of Klee’s layered drawing, with houses, colors, and geometric rhythms immersed in muted shadings, and Schuller’s spare orchestration spoke volumes. Not one unnecessary line, note, nor point of emphasis was sounded in this splendid performance.
Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs utilized a band of five saxophones, piano, trap drums, seated trombones, and standing trumpets. The precisely accented, swinging drumming and the creamy lead alto sax brought to mind the great Count Basie powerhouses, Jo Jones and Marshal Royal. But Bernstein gave equal tribute to the European composers who made such brilliant use of jazz equipment and language —Darius Milhaud (La Creation du Monde) and Igor Stravinsky (Ragtime for Eleven Instruments) — through intricate rhythmic shifts, blue notes, ragged lines, filigreed counterpoint, and unpredictable solo excursions on piano, trumpet, and, above all, clarinet. BSO principal contrabass Edwin Barker’s accelerated pizzicato lines pushed clarinetist Martin to soaring phrases redolent of Benny Goodman at the height of his power; Martin’s heartfelt blues inflections were worthy of Pee Wee Russell in the depth of his cups. As the piece drew to a close, Maestro Spano conjured a big band in full cry, wailing before a crowd of committed fans. His was the kind of identification and shared passion with which Ellington and Basie spurred their bandsmen to the best they could produce.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, sporting a well cut, black mini-morning coat, open white shirt with a high collar that tickled his mandible, and spiked hair, inhabited the Gershwin piano concerto with the same kind of intense focus that he brought to the Ravel concerto several Tanglewood seasons back. The man plays the piano as well as he dresses, but who would have thought that his heart was in jazz?
Through this curious and challenging work, with its repeated references to the showy pianistic devices of the great New York “Stride” players James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake and the New Orleans pianist and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton, Thibaudet made eye contact with individual players in the orchestra, establishing the rapport that brings out the best in jazz improvisation, digging his solo lines into those of the sections. He was having a ball, and the orchestra was infected by it. Immediately, he provoked unexpected expressions of delight among both musicians and audience. His danceable treatment of Gershwin’s “Charleston” (the original composed by the father of “Stride” piano, James P. Johnson) provoked the players to tap their feet. The three-over-four-beat hemiola that evoked Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” was played slowly and elegantly, and it swung all the more for the understatement. Here, Thibaudet moved the inhabitants of the Shed to do the shoulder-shift in their chairs. During the second movement blues, he rocked his head from side to side, deeply immersed in its feeling. In the final Allegro agitato, over an eight-to-the-bar rhythm, Thibaudet ignited a firestorm of multiply-struck notes in the middle range of the piano, tuning in precisely to the underpinning meter, using visual checks to bring the basses along in the excitement, and easing into the final crescendo with dynamic nuances that filtered through the orchestra like laser beams.
In this brilliantly accomplished performance, it was clear that Thibaudet was giving special tribute to Art Tatum. His precisely controlled, liquid arpeggios and carefully woven inner lines of the blues were instantly recognizable from Tatum’s celebrated improvisation on Dvorak’s Humoresque. Tatum himself improvised a send-up of that very firestorm in the middle of his 1949 eight-to-the-bar fast blues, “Tatum-Pole Boogie,” one of his most technically spectacular improvised performances. (Listen to it here:)
Gunther Schuller’s appreciation of Tatum’s prodigious technique is notable in this regard, both because his “Seven Studies” reveal such a deep comprehension of the structure and method of jazz and because of the manifest influence of Tatum on Thibaudet’s style and jazz technique: “The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages puzzled most who witnessed the phenomenon. He especially mystified other pianists to whom Tatum appeared to be playing the impossible.” Apropos of the impossible, one can see what Schuller is talking about in this transcription of the last improvised chorus of “Tatum-Pole Boogie” that takes the form of a tribute to the Stride masters James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, and especially in its astounding coda. Who can play a sweep of descending thirds like these and runs like these? (note: Your reviewer attests to the accuracy of his transcriptions.)
This deeply satisfying concert filled one with respect for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s versatility and stylistic flexibility, Robert Spano’s inspired direction, and both Thomas Martin’s and Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s virtuosity. It was also one of those days when American pride filled the Tanglewood Shed, as two great musical traditions melded seamlessly together.
August 18, 2010
In a concert on August 13 at Tanglewood that wove together soft-edged visual and auditory impressions of the lands of the Incas, Miguel Harth-Bedoya led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in seven short works of varying quality and one flashy encore. Only three made lasting impressions, Illapa, a tone Poem for Flute and Orchestra composed in 2004 by Gabriela Lena Frank, Mariel for Cello and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov (2008), and Fiesta, by Jimmy Lopez (2007). The Lopez work offered some real density and juice, and affecting solo appearances by the BSO’s own principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, and the young cello virtuoso, Alisa Weilerstein, brought dignity and aesthetic substance to their platforms.
The encore, Ary Barroso and Xavier Cugat’s pop hit, “Brazil,” was offered in an arrangement that drew on every Samba cliché in the book. Were the program notes to have included Cugat’s own words, they would have served the listener well: “I would rather play Chiquita Banana and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.”
But as Frank Sinatra would have said, “Everybody finished together, and nobody got hurt.”
A large movie screen dominated the stage, nearly obscuring the orchestra that played with illuminated music stands. (Note: the annual Tanglewood “film night” was scheduled the following night.) From the two large video projectors hung over the middle of the Shed, fan noises gave a breezy ostinato that obscured the details of every piano passage. Some pretty photographs of Machu Picchu, some taken from the adjacent Huayna Picchu mountain, along with 18th-century watercolors of Peruvian village life, fit nicely with the first two pieces on the program, the evocations of traditional songs by the early-20th-century composer, Alberto Alomia Robles, entitled El condor pasa (The condor passes) and an 18th-century proselytizing bishop, Baltasar Martinez y Companon, Coleccion de musica virreinal (Collection of Vice-Royal Music).
In the first of several short speeches, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya noted that the latter work was composed at about the same time that Mozart was writing The Marriage of Figaro. While each work used European compositional and orchestrational devices, however, neither approached mastery nor gave substance to the quoted indigenous melodies and rhythms. Rather, these were flattened, sweetened, mashed into diatonic harmonies, and otherwise deracinated and sterilized. That all the bishop’s watercolors displayed dancing Colonials gave an ironic verisimilitude to the first portion of the program.
Responsorio, by Diego Luzuriaga, evoked in nine minutes the mountains of Ecuador, with drums, flutes, and repeated themes in Aeolian mode. Some pretty overlays of muted trumpet on a ground of cello pizzicatos and an ineluctable crescendo toward the end signaled Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras and Stravinky’s Sacre du Printemps. Responsorio, however, came across neither as the work of a mature composer nor as a serious representation of its musical inspirations. The orchestration, heavy on the flutes and piccolo, didn’t begin to summon the life and verve of panpipes and their drummers. In the end, the build-up plodded to a half-hearted bass-drum bang.
Next followed a moment of embarrassment, if not an argument for more and better conservatory instruction in the humanities. “Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards,” Harth-Bedoya announced, “language was not written down, and music and pottery carried the culture.” Such was the Eurocentrism, if not triumphalism, that justified the innumerable cruelties visited on the Inca and Mayan by the conquistadores.
But the composer of Illapa, a tone poem for flute and orchestra, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru who has distinguished herself not only as a composer but also as an ethnomusicologist, clearly knew better. Gabriela Lena Frank’s idea was to capture the legendary dialogue, echoing across the Andes, between the eponymous weather god and the people in the valleys below, symbolized by percussion and traditional bamboo flute. Elizabeth Rowe, elegant in a coral gown, gave flight to the drama, counterpoising precisely articulated repeated low notes against percussion hits of claves and drums at the outset, defying gravity into the stratosphere, embracing the enterprise in a warm humanity of subtle shadings and dynamic nuances. In the return to the first theme, after a development reminiscent of Bartok and Hindemith and the familiar G tonality, Rowe’s exquisite duet with cello principal Jules Eskin, and then low-register violins and trumpets, depicted the aspiration to spiritual transcendence, surmounting the clatter of the percussion and the assertive dissonances in the trombones. Before a final strike of the claves, tremolo basses and pianissimo woodwinds supported a series of eerie high trills that magnificently showcased Rowe’s expressivity and utter mastery of her instrument. One had the impression that humanity – and indeed, culture – had held its own.
Golijov’s Mariel, originally written for cello and marimba in 1999, saw its orchestral premiere in 2008. Like his Blue, commissioned by the BSO three seasons ago, the work features washes of color with sustained chords that simultaneously envelop and mystify the listener, who wonders “Where is this going?” and “Why?” Here, in the absence of plausible development, there was an underpinning story, the tragic death of a friend. The composer’s words expressed his intentions to emulate the “waves and echoes of the Brazilian music that Mariel loved,” in which he “let the melodies and harmonies lead the music to a wider range of emotion.” Through these ambiguities, Alisa Weilerstein wove a tapestry of hope, love, sadness, and optimism, in a radiant, sonorous, nuanced series of arching phrases, wisps of fleeting melody, among interesting orchestral voicings, for example with harp, trombone, and chime. The accompanying color shadings and patterns on the screen above made absolutely no sense to this listener, as when, for example, a passage featuring marimba, bass drum, and English horn shifted to pink, and while the cello wailed in the upper register for a good 10 seconds, without a discernable change in the instrumental timbre, the color suddenly transmogrified to bright orange. Were it not for the glorious cello, this would have been a tissue of contradictory sound and fury, or rather son et lumiere, signifying rien.
Sadly, Alisa Weilerstein’s cello was closely miked, creating occasional distortions and odd overtones. That splendid artist neither needed, nor deserved, this enhancement. At one point, when the cello moved suddenly to a vibrato-less line in the lower register, it sounded like an entirely different instrument. One looked around in a vain effort to discern where on the stage the sound was coming from. Was it a high contrabass, the English horn without Robert Sheena’s ravishing natural vibrato?
Alfonso Leng’s 1905 Preludio No. 1 was a curious, three-minute trifle by a self-taught composer who, according to the program notes, achieved international recognition as a specialist in the dental subspecialty of odontology. Jacques Offenbach loomed as his inspiration, but the formulaic harmonies and absence both of intelligent melodic development and Latin sensibility made one wish that he had stuck with his day gig. It was perhaps just as well that at this point in the program, the buzzing projectors gave the audience the gift of a purple, geometric screen-saver with a circular hole in its center.
Four Pop Dances for Orchestra by Jimmy Lopez gave many moments of redemption. Composed in 2007 by a 22-year-old Peruvian, this was a muscular work that mixed ethnic references to Latin America with overlaid African rhythms, juiced up with delicious bits of old-time rumba and cha-cha, contemporary techno-pop, and jazz. There were riffs in the strings, rhythmic exchanges between the woodwinds and the brass, and a general sense of delighted experimentation. Suddenly, a conga-line formed over a powerful pedal C, the deep fundamental of Mike Roylance’s splendidly sonorous tuba pouring like molten brass, and the orchestra danced, faster and faster, to the edge of chaos. At last, some music you could sink your teeth into! The piece drew to a surprising close, after a burst of Spanish rhythms, on a sustained, unadorned perfect fifth, just barely suggesting a diamond-clear C chord.
Here, finally, it appeared that one could play Bach and keep the swimming pool.
August 7, 2010
When Zerbinetta (coloratura soprano Audrey Elizabeth Luna), the lead prankster in a disruptive comedy troupe, appears in shorts and a halter top that evoked Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in the original cast of South Pacific and prances up to Ariadne, (soprano Emalie Savoy), a noble prima donna sitting on a beach bench dressed in a formal, black gown, pouting about her loser of a lover, the god Theseus, it was evident that this wasn’t going to be your everyday staging of Richard Strauss’s 1912 opera, Adriane auf Naxos. August 4, 2010, saw the advent of new masterpiece of serious fun.
Zerbinetta and her irrepressible male cohorts, Brighella (tenor Lawrence Jones), Scaramuccio (tenor Martin Bakari), Truffaldin (bass David Salsbery Fry), and Harlequin (baritone Elliot Madore) wearing around their waists iridescent children’s pool-floats with silly animals in front, sang and mimed lessons from the book, “Freud für Frauleins.” They did this along with a regular Radio City Music Hall production of song and dance, acrobatics, jokes, and stagey sympathy, to coax Ariadne from her depression.
This didn’t work, of course. (Note from this doctor: It never does, yet everyone keeps trying.) In the end, however, the god Bacchus stepped off his yacht, sang some fabulous solos, duos, and trios, completed a quick costume change to resplendent golden robes and diadems, and spirited his similarly be-gowned Ariadne off to eternal bliss. This preposterous storyline gave Strauss and the present company’s gifted director, Ira Siff, plenty to work with. Sustaining the aesthetic momentum of Strauss’s preceding masterpiece, Der Rosenkavalier, into a phenomenal confabulation of spectacular singing, conducting, orchestral performance, zany beachwear and youthful hi-jinks, this production was balm for the soul, Prozac for the perplexed, and cause for optimism about the future of classical music. It was a delight in every way.
Preceded in the Prologue (as the Act I set-up to this play-within-a-play is called) by The Major-Domo (spoken by Hans Pieter Herman), The Dancing Master (tenor Patrick Jang), a Lackey (baritone Shea Owens), an Officer (baritone Javier Bernardo), and The Composer (a trouser role by mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall), these young singers came across as tomorrow’s stars in the making. Also appearing with individual and collective brilliance in the Performance (as the Act II is called), were the three visually and vocally stunning sea-nymphs, Najade (soprano Deanna Breiwick), Dryade (mezzo-soprano Kristin Hoff), and Echo (soprano Emily Duncan-Brown), Bacchus/The Tenor (Ta’u Pupu’a), and The Music Master/Harlequin (baritone Elliot Madore).
A chamber orchestra squeezed into the pit of the ancient Tanglewood Theater. Augmented by piano and harmonium into an emulation of the larger instrumental ensemble prescribed by Strauss, this small instrumental force was credibly — indeed magically — magnified into a proper orchestra by conductor Keitaro Harada through perfect timing, dramatic dynamics, and unerring coordination of the musical stagecraft. Not a second was out of synch. Everything had that ineffable snap. There was never a dull moment!
This could not have been easy for this superb young conductor, for the plot is absurdly complex, and his predecessor conductor, substituting for the recovering James Levine, was the redoubtable senior statesman, Cristoph Von Dohnianyi. (Imagine, if you will, who, under these circumstances, gets the lion’s share of the rehearsal time. Take it from your reviewer, this was the case here, with just 15 minutes for Mr. Harada, who fortunately knew the score cold and enjoyed the total trust of the musicians and singers, his fellow Tanglewood fellows.)
As well, the set of the Act I Prologue – “backstage at the private theater in the house of the richest man in Vienna” — differs greatly from that of the Act II Performance, taking place not in his theater but in the patron’s enormous, fancy living-room, and the cast counts a large number of singers located high, low, left, and right across the stage, who, walk, run, jump, and even fall as they sing. Harada was welcomed to the podium with a clatter of stamping feet from the orchestra, who played their hearts out for him and cheered him again at the end.
Among the stand-out performances were The Composer, a casually-dressed, middle-class man played by soprano Cecelia Hall in high dudgeon because the owner has told his Major-Domo, at the last possible minute, to compress into a single performance both the serious, commissioned work about a high-born singer marooned on a desert island, and a slap-stick comedy by a troupe of low-lifes. Blessed with a huge mezzo instrument and a fabulous repertory of foot stamps, eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and resigned slumps, Hall gave her all to soaring legato lines, wide intervals, and splendid embellishments. Across its range, Hall’s voice has a caramel consistency, as delightful to listen to as her colorful acting was to watch. When the Dancing Master, the Mr. Fix-It of the piece, suggested that she (he) “cut out the dull parts of Ariadne,” and “give him the pencil,” she sang “I’d rather burn it!” with poetic force sufficient to alert the motherboard of the house sprinkler system that serious trouble was coming.
Surely the most serious role was that of Ariadne, a prima donna outraged by the circumstances in which she is compelled to perform. Emalie Savoy brought an even, deeply resonant, warm voice to a complicated acting challenge that included her going ballistic, falling to the floor in mid-song as she responded to the Major-Domo’s announcement of what “the patron commands” and, in the main drama of the Performance, having to sit distractedly as the comedians pulled out their various entreaties to rouse her from her miserable funk.
Hall convincingly maintained her indignity through the show, finally relenting when one of the men proffered a handkerchief to dab her tears (grabbing it like a two-year-old in “no” mode) and, only in the end, succumbing to the godly power of Bacchus before deciding that, yes, she’d sail off into the sunset with a guy in whose veins ran “balsam and ether” rather than wait for a red-blooded human. Ariadne’s long, dramatic aria, bemoaning her loss of Theseus, who “walked in light and rejoiced in life,” soared to high A’s and piercing Bb’s over luscious chromaticisms and gorgeous French horn lines, melting into a lovely, more diatonic waltz redolent of Der Rosenkavalier and spiced with marvelous Eb to B major romantic harmonies. Ms. Savoy was formal and romantic at once, a wounded woman of passion, justly skeptical of any man’s love, only belatedly allowing herself to be swept off her feet by a god.
To Zerbinetta (Audrey Elizabeth Luna), however, fell the most challenging role. She distinguished herself equally with vocal virtuosity, physicality, and comic acting. In the Prologue, she was the prototypical girl “who cain’t say no,” oozing impulsive sexuality, emotional volatility, and desperate availability as she flirted with Officer and her trampy colleagues alike. In the Performance, she mused about the endless variety of male embraces and seductions.
Finding Freud, she discovered in paperback psychiatry a short list of useless aphorisms. In a dazzling, long aria, during which she tossed these half-truths at Ariadne, motionless on her bench, she surveyed the entire soprano range with trills in the stratosphere, delicate ornaments woven through arpeggiate lines, nailing difficult intervals, and bringing off two –—two ! — astounding vocal and acrobatic feats.
Soaring to a high Eb while urging Ariadne to stop her crying, she descended to high C, and then, as she ended the phrase, suddenly plopped to the floor and gave us a resounding low F. Carrying her book, “Freud für Frauleins,” to Ariadne, Zerbinetta’s mood changed to caring and concern, and she asked touchingly, “Yet aren’t we both women with hearts beating in our breasts, beyond understanding?” The two flutes descended sympathetically.
Even as Ariadne sat, mute and expressionless, Zerbinetta sang on, with deepening emotion about how she “never learned to curse men, unfaithful as they are.” Such “monsters, with no scruples!” As she asked, ”are we immune to their kisses?” she rocked Adriadne in her arms. In a passionate, rising arpeggio, she sang “I’m still faithful, ‘though I stray!” She added with emphasis: “I finally deceive him!”
In response to this proclamation of feminine empowerment, Ariadne, at long last, became animated. Indeed, she stood up, ascended the stairs to the door balcony behind them, and walked out! Not exactly your modern woman, either circa 1912 or 2010!
Zerbinetta, notwithstanding, continued her aria with increasing intensity and virtuosity: To the verse, “It’s amazing how your heart can be such a mystery,” her melody ascended to a high Eb before a florid cadenza scaled down and up to high Eb again, and then upward in a still more brilliant Bb arpeggio to high F, and then downward in an F arpeggio as she fell, incredibly, flat on her back.
From this impossible posture, her star coloratura turn continued for what must have been minutes, perfectly sounding wooly trills, lambent appoggiaturas, up-and-down arpeggios, all kinds of embellishments and odd intervals over multiple orchestral polytonalities and innumerous intersecting inner lines. This was a spectacular tour de force. If you hadn’t been there, you’d not have believed it! (Note to gentle reader: Click to the Metropolitan Opera box office to catch her debut as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute during the coming season. While you’re at it, get a couple for Cecelia Hall’s debut as the Second Priestess in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride.)
Ta’u Pupu’a, in the Bacchus/The Tenor role, brought a commanding physical presence and fervent, silken, superbly focused voice to his emotional solo and duo arias with Ariadne. The former may have had something to do with his first choice of career, during which he sustained an injury. Faute de mieux! Forced to return to opera from the National Football League, to which he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and also played for the Baltimore Ravens, he studied and performed with Kiri Te Kanawa at the Solti/Te Kanawa Bel Canto Academy in Italy. When Pupu’a sang of love’s bringing “balm to the body and slumber to the soul,” he was persuasive indeed, but when he told Ariadne of his fleeing the clutches of the enchantress Circe, “Your magic bonds barely touched me! Do not burden my fragile heart with your dark enchantment,” she seemed pretty convinced that this god was a good catch.
Elliot Madore, the baritone whose amorous antics as The Music Master/Harlequin won Zerbinetta’s heart, was the most tender of comedians, strumming a neon blue ukulele as he approached her bench. Sitting at a respectful distance from Ariadne, he sang of love and hope. But “Bali Ha’i” this was not. Rather, he sympathized honestly: “Love, hate, hope, fear drive pain through the heart. All these again are yours!” With a gracious gesture, he offered her his handkerchief. Madore’s voice could not have been more apposite to this role: warm, embracing, brimming with articulate nuance.
There were no weak links in the chain that connected this stunning evening of human theater to the muses above and the poetic imaginations of Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Watch for all these singers, players, and conductor in the years ahead. The future of opera is in capable hands.
August 5, 2010
Juanjo Mena led an exciting tour of Gustav Mahler’s time and influences in the Tanglewood Shed on July 31.The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of this formidable Spanish conductor, affirmed his visionary utilization of the entire string, woodwind, brass, and percussion sections as instrumental voices, first mediated through Alban Berg’s whirling Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6, and, directly, in the concert closer, the pleasing and accessible Mahler Symphony No. 4 in G, with soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. In between, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, presented with touching grace by Hong, punctuated the Mahler conversation with complementary visions of inevitable mortality. The piece bows in the direction of his and Mahler’s shared inspiration, Richard Wagner. This was incisively intelligent programming (with thanks to the recovering James Levine, whom Mena replaced as the evening’s conductor) that gave insight into the energies and emotions that powered the European beginnings of modern music.
In his book, Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link, Theodore Adorno, his student and biographer, noted how, in Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, “his most Mahlerian score became the most complicated one he ever wrote. In wild abandon, with multi-note chords and friction between countless simultaneous voices, he far surpasses in sheer provocation everything which moderns had until then been capable. The turning point in Berg’s style is at once its moment of greatest shock. . .Under the glass plates of form, large as a house, in the wild distorted motley array of orchestral planes, those fragments awaken to a second and catastrophic significance. . .If mediocre humanity disintegrates into banal illusion, then the form that reflects that illusion is magnified to inhuman and terrifying proportions. The hammer blow in the third piece symbolizes that . . .in that scenic moment when the man asserts his full strength, only to be immediately smothered in the sphere of banality. With a giant’s fear, Berg piles them one on top of the other. It is fear that they breed.”
The 24-year-old Berg, moved by the premiere of Mahler’s fourth Symphony in 1909, approached the composer afterward. Mahler gave him his baton. According to Henry-Louis de La Grange, in Volume Four of his Mahler biography Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911), Berg was so devoted to Mahler that he joined the vigil at the sanatorium where Mahler was hospitalized before he died. His wife was asleep when he returned home after Mahler’s death. The following morning, on awakening, she asked after Mahler. Berg, speechless, pointed at his black tie.
If there was one section that captured the sense of life’s struggles and death’s rigors in the Three Pieces, it was the brass. Never has this reviewer heard such stunning section work and solo brilliance as in the build-up to first, huge climax early in the first movement, with Thomas Rolf’s agonized high trumpet over broadly-bowed contrabasses, and Mike Roylance’s rocketing tuba, across the entire range, with earth-shattering pedal tones and keening upper-register cries of distress as the whole brass section clamored in sympathy. Then, with muted trombone, violins in tremolo, and muted trumpet, the volume ramped down, and a three-note descending fragment, Gb, E, Db, was tossed around. In scary symmetry the opening rumbles of bass drum and tympani returned, and the movement steamrolled into a waking state, as if after a nightmare.
A pretty, perfectly blended French horn choir supported Rolf’s muted trumpet at the beginning of the “Round Dance,” or Reigen, as Berg called the second movement. After an echo by the woodwind choir, the cellos swooped up and down, and a flirtatious wisp of melody by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe led into a flagrant oompah-pah of a weirdly inverted waltz, with the ooms in the strings and the pah-pahs on the drums and cymbal. Sexy madness! (Reigen was also the title of a 1900 play by Arthur Schnitzler that examined German sexual mores across boundaries of social class. It subsequently led to the so-called “Reigen scandal,” in which Schnitzler was attacked by politicians and in the press as a “Jewish pornographer.” In her article, “Truth, Gender, and Sex: Berg’s Schnitzler and Motivic Processes in‘Reigen’,” in the Journal of Musicological Research, Christina Gier observed inflections in the music that reflect this text, based on Berg’s own thoughts as written in his diaries and his personal copy of Schnitzler’s play. “Close musical analysis, informed by literary insight” she wrote, “reveals that the ‘liberation of the sensual’ is central to Berg’s compositional process. Despite previous assertions of a structural correlation of music to play, Berg’s “Reigen” emerges as distinctly different from the play, in that it musically articulates the liberation of the sensual, while the satire can only imply it.”)
Washes of muted brass followed the short waltz, and sparkling, solo harp arpeggios introduced the next bit of dancehall passion, a string tune of which Mantovani would have been proud, if it hadn’t lasted for but 10 seconds before giving way to Mike Roylance’s tuba.
This was not the honeyed and limpid tuba of the “Bydlo” movement in Pictures at an Exhibition that melted the hearts of the huge crowd that came to hear YoYo Ma perform the following afternoon, and winning Roylance the second – the second! – stand-up acknowledgement from Maestro Meno. (Trust this tuba-playing reviewer: orchestral tubists toot their entire tenures without tasting this tender treat.) No, this was Roylance on the warpath, unburdening himself of a rapid cannonade of up-and-down chromatic arpeggios in precisely articulated fortissimo, leaping over howling horns and brass and scaring the Bejesus out of the assembled sinners.
Next, two trumpets in thirds waltzed into a dramatic accelerando with high horns wailing, clarinet sobbing, and a rapid, repeated high figure in the woodwinds. The door was opening, and the devil might be standing there! This frightful section closed with a short, legato, very sad song expressed touchingly by Rolfs with mute in hand, then whispered by high-register flutes, and more prominently, piccolo and oboe. But that judging tuba blasted back the last chastisement, a stentorian, downward roll of sfortzandos. All that was left was the pitiful humanity of a quiet, solitary major third in the French horns. Repentance, maybe.
Sounding a bit like the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the final movement, “March,” began with a saucy, rhythmic phrase in the English horn that led into a jazzy, chromatic riff by the trombone choir. Roylance’s high tuba led the dancers through shifting, chromatic harmonies with xylophone sprinklings into a brass extravaganza, with choirs of horns, and whole sections of the orchestra picking up the martial rhythm.
The drums went bang, the cymbals clanged, and the horns they blazed away, but this was no McNamara’s band. It was a blazing symphony in overdrive, with screaming trumpets, bursts of tympani, chattering xylophone, high register horns, then suddenly the whole band directed on a downward melodic legato line over the strutting tuba.
All this calamitous chaos was beautifully conducted, with clear and confident cues, and tempered gestures. Juanjo Mena gave every impression of knowing and loving this challenging work without making a big deal of its implicit dramatics. He drew from the orchestra one of the most committed performances in memory. (Considering all the repertory they have to cover in so few days, with so few rehearsals, it is an impressive tribute to their professionalism that they continue to produce at such a high level for an unexpected parade of guest conductors.)
In the end, there were more blasting hits from the bass drum, swirling fragments of melody, glockenspiel resonances of marching bands, a repeated low tuba Db, followed by repeated tuba Bb’s, the minor third signifying from below that there was no hope ahead, and then a crying theme that could have been a Wagner motif, played in unison by several sections, a huge crash of the gong, and, suddenly, a dramatic decrescendo, with harp chords over a withering, descending trombone line, over a continuous, rapid underpinning of pizzicato violins, beginning low and keening upward to a high repeated figure.
Anxiety ran unabated, until bang went the tympani and bass drum, ending the story of striving, embarrassed impulse, unfulfilled yearnings for release, and inexpressible human emotion, all plucking the strings of your heart. This was real stuff, but highly allusive and allegorical. The effect was confusing, devastating, but enormously satisfying, a visit to the devil with a pass back to the simple pleasures of daily life.
If the Berg was allusive, the Strauss songs could hardly have been more explicit in their touching, accepting reflections on life’s passing. The four last songs are entitled “Spring,” “September,” “Going to Sleep, and “At Sunset.” Moved by the poem, At Sunset, by Joseph von Eichendorf, this was the composer’s final completed major work. Setting three texts of Hermann Hesse and one by von Eichendorff for soprano and orchestra, Strauss included vivid French horn supports in each movement, beckoning the memory of his father, Franz Strauss, a renowned horn player, and bowing to his wife, Pauline de Ahna, a gifted soprano, the sound of whose voice gave comfort to Strauss during his last illness.
“Spring,” presented thoughtfully and with soft-edged nuances by Hei-Kyung Hong, radiant in a sparkling, low-cut, mauve gown, ascends upward in long circles around an Eb tonality, then subsequently, through a gorgeous progression in the strings, with a poignant connection to the verse: “In shadowy crypts I dreamt long of your trees and blue skies of your fragrance and birdsong. Now you appear, in all your finery, shining brilliantly, like a miracle before me.” and at the end of the poem, “You recognize me, you entice me tenderly. All my limbs tremble at your blessed presence!” Here, there is a glimpse of the stunning polytonality of the Presentation of the Rose in Der Rosenkavalier and, a diminuendo in which the tonality shifts from Bb to Ab, and a splendid, rising whole tone progression that returned to Bb tonality for the entire orchestra. Splendidly suited to the piece, Ms. Hong’s voice and subtle gestures were knowing and mature, and the effect was true, unsentimental, and moving.
The text of “September,” also by Hesse, begins “The garden is in mourning. Cool rain seeps into the flowers.” After a lush expression of Db tonality in the orchestral introduction, a lovely flow of woodwinds and high strings pushed the melody of the song upward to a plangent high Ab, and then a deepening sadness expressed by Ms. Hong in the descending melody. Here was the quintessence of late romanticism, capturing in sound the feeling of “Summertime shudders, quietly awaiting his end.” Maestro Mena coordinated the melodic lines instrumental dynamics in a marvelously gracious way, turning partly to face the singer on his left, evoking in his expressions and gestures the emotions of the verse and the music, even as his baton, sweeping gently across his music stand, signaled the changing intensity of Strauss’s marvelous orchestration.
The French horns played a powerful role in the drama that followed, and as the soprano line descended to F and then Bb and down, and the horn choir led the harmonic progression down to Gb and an F minor sustained with arpeggiate figures to the last stanza of the poem: “For just a while he tarries beside the roses, yearning for repose. Slowly he closes his weary eyes.” This was a ravishingly beautiful moment.
Then a gorgeous French horn melody brought woodwinds and strings together in a stirring, final Eb chord. This was sublime match of poetry, music, and orchestration and – equally so— singer, conductor, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its very best. With all respect to James Levine, who conceived this program and knows it so well, his players and guest conductor served him well.
The text of the third song, also by Hesse, “Going to sleep,” begins “Now that I am wearied of the day, I will let the friendly, starry night greet all my ardent desires like a sleepy child.” From the short introduction, where the contrabasses bowed a deep Db and C, and the cellos and violin sounded the black-note descending melody, the verse began, with massed high woodwind voices alternating with the string section counterpoising splendidly the starry night and the ardent desires. The sleepy child’s foggy perceptions were expressed in hushed tones by the soprano and exquisitely embellished in an extended, quiet violin solo by Malcolm Lowe. This was a lullaby, over simple chords in the cellos, horns, woodwinds, and basses, soon transmuted into a different state of consciousness. To “Hands, stop all your work. Brow, forget all your thinking. All my senses now yearn to sink into slumber,” the melodic lines reached slowly upward, and the soprano’s melody, graced with languid arpeggiate intervals, yielded a hypnotic effect, a suspension of active reflection on the inevitable end of life.
Ms. Hong ascended to a high Db before the melody continued, over the horn section. She gave the words “And my unfettered soul wishes to soar up freely into night’s magic sphere to live there deeply and thousand fold,” a convincing, warm humanity. A variation of this melody re-appeared in the violins, braced by the entire choir of horns, descending down to a low Db as the violins bowed a downward arpeggio to a low F, joining and sustaining the final, moving, Db chord.
In the introduction of the final song, “At Sunset,” set to Eichendorff’s text, the tympani softly propelled the opening F major chord to a brilliant progression reminiscent of Puccini’s La Bohème. But here, in a lovely melody sung over the romantic progression, Ms. Hong gave voice to Strauss’s more optimistic mood. (What is it about those chords, progressing in thirds, that so magically evoke a deep, emotional landscape? Schumann and Wagner blazed this path, and Strauss and Mahler imprinted them indelibly on us.) Another affecting integration of word, melody, and harmony came as Ms. Hong sang the last three words of the verse, “Around us, the valleys bow’ the air is growing darker. Just two skylarks soar upwards dreamily into the fragrant air”’ to sustained Gb tonalities supporting eight exquisite flute trills.
Clarity of vision, with the melodic line soaring over crystal-clear harmonies, underpinned the final stanza, “O vast, tranquil peace, so deep at sunset! How weary we are of wandering — Is this perhaps death?” A marvelous, stately progression of chords emphasized the specific melodic and textual phrases: “O vast, “tranquil peace,” “so deep ” “How weary,” then a short progression to a C minor “Is this perhaps”, Bb major “death?”
Just as the listener was reminded, in this elegantly paced row of harmonies, of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a legato theme emerged in unison strings and muted trumpets that rang with familiarity from the tone poem, and the suite of songs drew quietly to an ending that left one pondering one’s death with a mix of sadness and solace. The final question – death? – gave one pause to ponder the possibility of enduring life, and the certainty of enduring music.
After the last echo of sound in the Shed there was silence. Some 15 seconds passed before the first, tentative applause began. This was an unforgettable moment of reverential contemplation, and shared wonder at the inspired performance.
After the resounding, and unprecedented success of Mahler’s Third Symphony, “the Fourth, so very different, enraged the Viennese public, who thought its stylistic references to their beloved Haydn, Mozart and Schubert a virtual insult. Viennese critics took the Symphony to task as a pastiche of ‘contrived naïvetés’ and impertinent quotations.” Lewis Smoley’s chapter in the authoritative edited volume, The Cambridge Companion to Mahler (edited by Jeremy Barham), treats adroitly the enthusiasm of great conductors both for Mahler’s music and his compositional vision, that mirrored the worship of such composers as Schoenberg and Berg.
In the year the Fourth was published, 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler, conducted the first performance of the Third Symphony and completed his Fifth Symphony. This frenetic year also welcomed the birth of his daughter, Maria Anna, whose death from scarlet fever in 1907 marked the fulcrum of depression and marital turbulence that propelled Alma into the arms of Walter Gropius when she met him while recovering at a spa. In turn, the emotional juggernaut sent hurling down the track by these events weighed down on Mahler’s life and powerfully affected his music down to his own death in May, 1911, at the age of 50.
The first movement of the Fourth (marked “Pretty easygoing”) begins with a violin theme now familiar to concertgoers, because it is played so frequently, notwithstanding the snobbery (and prejudices) abroad in Austria at the time of its premiere. Jolly sleigh-bells, contrabasses and French horns set up an expansive, sunny mood. Maestro Mena appeared with the sound of the orchestra and actively engaged with its players. The sweet second theme was gracefully lifted by the second violins and cellos, then tossed to the woodwinds. Slower variations followed, and Mena and the whole crew appeared to be breathing this glorious music together.
The main theme returned, along with the sleigh-bells, buttressed by a colorful counter-melody in the French horns and basses. Suddenly, the entire cello section offered a taste of Mahler’s Second Symphony in a delicious, downward glissando to the next iteration of the principal theme and the sleigh-bells. This was nothing if not a mid-summer night’s dream of Klezmer music at Christmastime! Delightful!
Keeping up the Eastern-European resonance, a quasi-Gypsy, quasi-Klezmer theme came and went in the French horns, followed by a virtuoso turn for all the contrabasses, going rapidly from pizzicato to arco to a happy dance with the contrabassoon. Superb, leaping clarinet, horn, and an entire muted trumpet section kept the party going, and Mena swept the baton low and up across the podium in a graceful dance of his own, perfectly mirroring Mahler’s soaring phrases.
At the end of the movement, a splendid solo horn led a diminuendo down to a pianissimo restatement of the first theme, before a glorious cascade drew down the curtain. Certainly, this orchestra has this piece embedded in its collective DNA, but this was a very special performance of a deservedly popular work.
The second movement (marked “At an easygoing pace. Without haste.”) began with a Stravinskian theme with folksy elements played eloquently by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. He plucked some lovely Ab’s over the flowing strings, pushing the pulse and giving a special sparkle to the splendid string-focused orchestration. Then the contrabassoon, then all the woodwind voices joined in, and a series of French horn calls prefigured horn solos that extended throughout the movement.
So much more accessible than Berg, and so much less chromatic than Strauss, this symphony enabled a kind of archeological excavation of Mahler’s own musical idols, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Wagner principal among them.
Ms. Hong emerged to sing the soprano role at the outset of the next movement. To a slow melodic introduction in the second violins, sustained gently by the cellos, playing almost without vibrato and echoed by the oboe, she sang a magnificent, long, reflective melody that moved across the tonalities of G major and E minor. A weepingly beautiful solo by English horn virtuoso, Robert Sheena, gave way to repeated high appoggiaturas in the violins, then another English horn melody that descended to a magnificently-voiced low E.
An aura of sadness swept across the orchestra, suddenly brightened by a quick waltz with a martial flavor, the basses plucking both first and second beats, before returning to duple meter. Muted trumpet, glockenspiel, and cymbals accompanied the French horns, both in solo and in section, in an inspired heralding of the song to come, “Life in Heaven.”
A wisp of melody, bowed by the violins on the descending theme was echoed very quietly in the woodwinds. The horns rose in thirds to a glorious C ninth chord, and a fervent cadence down to G, then a strong E major with trumpets blazing, and cymbals and tympani crashing.
In moments, the mood was transformed. The horns held their instruments high, and summoned the heavenly hosts. Then, suddenly, a softer horn choir, and lovely, quiet harp arpeggios (those magical, romantic thirds again!) led to a liquid clarinet introduction to Ms. Hong’s entrance on the words, “We enjoy heavenly pleasures, and therefore avoid earthly ones. . .We lead angelic lives.” This verse was elevated by flights of piccolo by Cynthia Myers and flutters of flute by Elizabeth Rowe. Sleigh-bells rang softly and continued until the tonality shifted to minor, with repeated, nuanced mid-range appoggiaturas in the English horn.
Ms. Hong’s voice seemed perfectly suited for this other-worldly verse, with slightly reedy crescendos in the soft dynamics of the exquisite falling melody that brought the symphony to its close. She shaped the song beautifully, and the orchestra supported her magnificently. Every musician seemed to be listening expectantly, inhabiting the music as it unfolded. This was the committed musicmaking that makes the Boston Symphony one of the world’s greatest orchestras.
Once again at the end of the Mahler, there was a thoughtful pause of several seconds before the start of the deserved ovation. Few in the hall seemed unmoved by these inspired performances. Tears could be seen in many eyes.
August 1, 2010
In an ambitious program of songs and virtuoso piano pieces by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Andreas Haefliger filled Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on July 30 with a full palette of affecting melodies, romantic harmonies, and layers and layers of inner voices and textual meanings. The program included Schumann’s lieder to texts by Heinrich Heine (Opus 45, No. 3; Opus 127, No. 3; Opus 142, No. 4; and the Liederkreis, Opus 24), and Brahms’s Three Intermezzi for Piano Solo, (Opus 117), and Nine Lieder und Gesange, (Opus 32, to texts by August Graf von Platen-Hallermunde and Georg Friedrich Daumer), with one encore, the Brahms Ach, Wende Diesen Blick (“Oh, Turn Away this Gaze”).
Matthias Goerne, a disciple of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, brings to his audience the master’s legendary investment of meaning into every syllable, exacting articulation, and tonal nuance, and in addition to these attributes, a dark, velvety baritone voice, with a range that descends to a succulent F like a 16-foot diapason on a 19th-century organ.
If a fair comparison can be made to his teacher (based on listening to recordings and a single live performance during the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1980s), where Fischer-Dieskau is elegant and controlled and carefully modulates each gesture as well as every phrase, Goerne permits himself to express passion in the extreme, hugging the narrow portion of the lid of the piano, rocking from foot to foot, and reaching out and pulling the audience into nearly overwhelming surges of melody and feeling.
Neither breaking his voice nor affecting emotion through vocal tricks, Goerne inhabits the music in a manner that is both thoroughly convincing and deeply moving. So strongly, so powerfully, indeed, that one searches for comparisons to masters known barely to suppress what lurks below, to Rostropovich, perhaps, and surely to Horowitz, of whom Leon Fleisher once observed that were he not to tame those subterranean magmas with his prodigious technique, they would burn up the hall.
Utilizing a similarly eruptive metaphor in his magisterial volume, Music in the Romantic Era, Alfred Einstein observed that the songs that closed the first portion of this concert came after a period in which Schumann had written “only piano music and, being a genuine Romantic, had thought instrumental music the only fitting means by which the inexpressible could be expressed, and the inmost secret of feeling could be penetrated. He had felt that the word, as something too rational, was a fetter, a limitation. But when with Opus 24, the Heine song-sequence, he began to write lieder, he was like a volcano in eruption.”
Schumann wrote 138 songs in 1840 and departed from Franz Schubert both in a reformulation of the role of the text — in Schumann’s words, “to liberate the word from the curse of reason, and by means of the unity of feeling between language and music, to fuse them into something like a universal art-work” — and also in the use of the piano, in less a subordinate role than a seeking with the singer “a more highly artistic and more profound kind of song.”
With Andreas Haefliger as his collaborator, Goerne engaged powerfully with a pianist of surpassing musicality and stunning technical capacities. This was manifested in his rapturous facial expressions when Haefliger performed Schumann’s pianistic commentaries, evocations, and variations on the vocal text. The piano, while never overwhelming the voice, played an equal role in this mostly satisfying concert—mostly, but not entirely, it must be said, and not due to any fault of the performers, who did their best to manage a curve ball thrown their way by the Tanglewood printer. Although the event was scheduled for 8:00 pm, the program supplement carrying the texts and translations could not be located. The artists “prefer not to go on until the audience has them in hand,” announced Benjamin Schwartz, an artistic manager of the BSO, “and they are being copied now.” Although the crowd in the hall seemed patient, a wave of rhythmic clapping swept in from the lawn. At 8:40, the artists appeared.
Such wonderful music can, of course, be appreciated from sound alone, but unlike listening to the opera on the radio, when one is facing two performers so obviously involved in expressing this “more profound kind of song,” it can, and did indeed prove to be an exercise in frustration. There were so many heart-felt expressions of unknown meaning, so many achingly unanchored melodies, movingly uncertain harmonic transitions, that splendidly descending baritone lines down to that gorgeous low F —yes, low F — that gave emphasis to suspensions and appoggiaturas that left one suspended.
The Brahms piano Intermezzi began in a gently rocking 6/8 meter with a quietly expressed melody, each note lovingly articulated, and thoughtfully voiced inner lines. The predominant Eb tonality gave way suddenly to a C minor that floated ambiguously, unclear in direction, before resolving gently through F minor and Bb to Eb. This taste of straightforward harmonic logic quickly gave way quickly to a succession of rich, chromatic chords with only wisps of melody and tangled inner voices that collided in bitter dissonances. Where was Brahms taking us? But the first theme returned with a warm, delicious sense of comfort and, as it descended, a charmingly Romantic progression emerged: Eb, D, C, Bb, Ab, G, and the lovely cadence Ab, A diminished, Eb, Bb, Eb, ending with a sweet, bell-like Eb octave. Where had we been?
Haefliger’s impressive control and ability to develop crescendos and diminuendos over many measures or three-note passages gave feeling to the next, more rapid section, with its complex counterpoint and repeated, embedded V7-tonic resolutions in lively, chromatic sequence, dense tangles of suspensions in the center of the keyboard. The melody was brilliantly subordinated here – always evident but requiring extra attention to enjoy it — and all the activity was muted, as if a quilt were thrown over an emotional storm.
Then a moderato introduction with ambiguous tonality led into a beautifully articulated melody in the left hand, with chords above, and then a unison line in both hands that arched upward in Bb, A minor, and D minor arpeggios before resolving in a sad, simple A 7th D-minor cadence. Something was certainly stirring here, and with a shudder, the tonality shifted to Bb with sparkling, repeatedly struck high C’s and D’s over flowing left hand harmonies.
Where these twinkles sounded as sweet tenths and unresolved ninths, now the upper line became gnarly and passionate, with several Eb to D, and Ab to G appoggiaturas. The rubato section that followed was polychromatic, with an impressively moderated, beautiful paced crescendo leading to a restatement of the first melody, this time offered over an unexpected cadence through a new harmonic path: B 7th, E minor, E diminished, A 7th, D minor. Because of Haefliger’s secure sense of the logic of all of this, and his secure handling of the challenging dynamics and chromaticisms, one felt that a confident guide was taking over this mountainous route.
The Brahms lieder that closed the concert were enjoyed with translations in hand. And what evocative words they were:
— on sexual fantasies (bashfully expressed, perhaps alluding to Brahms’s confused sexuality and giving emphasis to their commanding significance): “How I roused myself, in the night, in the night; And felt myself drawn further; I left the alleys, guarded by the watchmen; And wandered through quietly, in the night, in the night; The gate with the Gothic arch.”
— on heartache: “I no longer live quietly; Ah, speak, say only one word”
— on the shame of psychological pain: “I creep about, sad and mute; you ask me not, why? My heart shakes with so much pain! Could I ever be too gloomy?”
— and on the unremitting power of amorous obsession: “Alas, so you would again; you hindering shackles, imprison me? . . .Out streams the longing of the soul, flowing out in clamorous songs; inhaling ethereal fragrances!”
To these words were attached music that glowed with passion and confusion: “in the night, in the night” with mounting tension voiced by layered, rising appoggiaturas, as Goerne rocked foot-to-foot, concluding with a desperate cadence G minor, B major, E minor; heartache signified by Goerne’s emphasizing the sadness of the repeated E minor-A minor cadences with yearning, summoning gestures with this left hand; depression with multiple C-B natural appoggiaturas, with subtle emphasis on the Cs; and romantic yearning in a huge voice over a more orchestral piano treatment, with stormy left-hand textures, roiling chords, excited arpeggios and rapid harmonic transitions from minor to major and back.
After the encore (of course without translation), one was left impressed with the vision implicit in Goerne’s and Haefliger’s combined approach to these masterpieces. Their search for meaning unapologetically probed the depths of human experience, and celebrated our shared humanity. Tonight’s was a noble effort, which ultimately surmounted its technical difficulties. Existential truths appeared to emerge from this challenging, beautiful concert: life is not about perfection, and art that accepts our imperfections can leap to, in Schumann’s words, “a more profound kind of song.”
July 26, 2010
An uproarious stage performance of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio K. 384, on July 23, 2010, was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Debus conducting, featuring soprano Lisette Oropesa as Konstanze, a Spanish lady; soprano Ashley Emerson as her English maid, Blonde; tenor Eric Cutler as her noble Spanish fiancé, Belmonte; tenor Anthony Stevenson as Belmonte’s former servant, Pedrillo, now serving as Pasha Selim’s supervisor of gardens; bass Morris Robinson as the Pasha’s country house overseer, Osmin; Will LeBow as the narrator; and a mixed chorus of 16 Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows. The opera was sung and spoken in German, with English supertitles and narrative text by Simon Butteriss.
For all its buffoonery and sexy lampoonery — underscored by Will LeBow’s shameless emphasis of each and every salacious implication of Simon Buttriss’s hilarious script — the stand-up used send-up of anti-Islamic prejudice to make serious points about our enduring inability to separate person from stereotype. The narration drew attention to our confining assumptions about Moslem addictions to violent fantasy, obsessions with controlling misogyny, aversions to healthy sexuality, and rejections of Western morality.
In the end, there was a seeming paradox in the Pasha’s granting liberty to the captured, loving couples. Despite Osmin’s insistence on, and Kostanze’s and Belmonte’s expectation of, torture and execution, the Pasha, on realizing that Belmonte was the son of the arch-enemy who had exiled him from his own land during the Crusades, repudiated Belmonte’s father’s cruel path by granting mercy to his son. When the tables were turned, the Pasha invoked a higher justice. His forsaking retribution allowed the captive lovers to pursue their happiness free from his control, and turned the stereotypes on their heads.
Nuanced dynamics and supple, responsive string and woodwind playing in the overture made it clear that Mozart was in good hands with Johannes Debus standing in on short notice for James Levine, who is recovering from surgery. This young German conductor, who currently serves as Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company, has a long and deep interest in opera and an impressive repertory. He delighted in this debut, expressing in confident rhythms, gracious gestures, finely turned phrases, precise cues, and lots of smiles, a friendly comfort with world-class players and singers and an intuitive feel for Mozart and musical humor. Drawing from all of them terrific ensemble work, spectacular solos, and, from the singers, dazzling duos, trios and quartets, Debus responded with gratitude, engaging deeply in every interchange, even as he steered the ship with accuracy and style. The evening flew by, even though the love-songs were ever so gently paced.
The comedic timing, too, was totally unhurried, and the singers dug into their roles with gusto. When a Mozartian synthesis of story, melody, rhythm, and role comes across so convincingly – would that it happened more often! – one must acknowledge not only the coordinated efforts of the conductor, cast and orchestra, but also the serious preliminary work of rehearsing and coaching the singers who carry the roles. For this superb expression of the composer’s vision, the audience was indebted to Tanya Blaich, who teaches in the piano and voice departments of the New England Conservatory of Music and served as both rehearsal pianist and vocal coach.
Morris Robinson’s Osmin was a star turn straight out of Sid Caesar, with expressions worth a thousand laughs and body moves that recalled the glory days of live TV. His stunning voice, with low Eb’s and Bb’s of surpassing potency, flowed seamlessly across the range, giving special luster to the bass legato lines in the vocal ensemble, and real firepower, when he needed it, at the top. His laughable bluster was spectacularly unconvincing, but he modulated and tempered every outburst. How glorious it was to see such a big man with such a huge instrument making such a fuss with such a light touch! It was a delight to see hear him again, four years after his splendid Tanglewood debut as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, and again in that role last year. (Your reviewer could not but think as he admired Robinson’s work that had Mozart had the foresight to score a tuba in the brass section, BSO principal Mike Roylance, another big guy with a light touch on a huge horn, could have given him a run for his money. To be sure, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that sufficiently precise valves enabled the invention and construction of the tuba. Consequently, the salaried orchestral tuba player always counts among his or her dearest friends Johann Sebastian, Ludwig, and Wolfgang.)
The first act of the opera included impressive arias by lovely Lisette Oropesa, a powerhouse soprano whose supple embellishments, including real trills, gave convincing emphasis to the long phrases that signified Kostanze’s longing for her fiancée, and, before the dénouement, her philosophical acceptance of a terrible fate at the Pasha’s command.
Eric Cutler’s mellifluous tenor was perfectly suited for the dignified Belmonte, pining “I’m going to find you, Kostanze!,” utilizing melisma-infused inflections in a big, sweet, focused voice. He, like Oropesa, filled the Shed with gorgeous sound, easily rising over the orchestra, the balance skillfully calibrated by Debus and both singers’ musical intelligence. Cutler’s performance was delightfully reminiscent of his effervescent role as the “Italian tenor” in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera last New Year’s Day. One surely sensed his potential then, but the greater emotional range and gravitas of this comic role suited him much better.
Oropesa (Kostanze) soared gracefully to the outer limits of the soprano range, hitting no fewer than ten high D’s as she asserted her emotional independence from the Pasha, with not a shiver from her robust, satiny timbre. A crisis then was presented, when the Pasha (through the narrator) informed her that she must make up her mind to love him by the next day, or else. But Pedrillo appeared and introduced Belmonte to Osmin as an American architect who had just arrived to help the Pasha extend his palace. Step #1 of the abduction strategy!
Pedrillo’s amorata, Blonde, sung by Ashley Emerson, considered her own parlous situation in the face of Osmin’s clumsy advances in a skyrocketing aria replete with flights of legato to a high D and then, spectacularly, to a high F, before descending effortlessly in a Bb major arpeggio to a confident cadence. Stunning!
The narrator noted that Osmin was not a “Moslem fundamentalist” but rather a “Moslem sentimentalist. ” (The use of such contemporary epithets came across as good-natured parody of our own stereotypes, not as judgments of religious or cultural archetypes.) Although he might aim to seduce Blonde, he asserted, she would be as resistant to his overtures as her mistress was to the Pasha’s.
In the accompanying aria, the diminutive Blonde threatened the hulking Osmin with violence if he didn’t back off. Growling at one another in the low notes of both the female and male lower registers and expressing their mutual bewilderment in the other’s actions, they badgered one another in a splendid duo that poked fun at the limits of masculine pretension and control. Blonde is English, he asserted, and who can fathom how such women can be so resistant? But an English girl’s spirit is free even when she’s forced into a burkha, she replied. Here, Mozart counterposed Blonde’s fabulous sassiness against perfectly blended strings in a rapid 6/8 meter. If anyone in the audience were wondering here about Gilbert and Sullivan’s inspiration for their pointed patter on proper Englishmen, this peppery portion of the play presented the potion perfectly plainly.
Kostanze sang again of her sadness and love of Belmonte in a challenging and lengthy aria marked with long leaps to high Ab’s followed by glorious descending scales — Mozart emphasizing her pain and longing in these superbly punctuated, downward swoops of melody – proceeding through exposed, perfectly-articulated F minor accented arpeggios to a touching ending (“a withered rose that never shows is no less wretched than my heart”) that was echoed by John Ferillo’s sweetly sympathetic oboe, and reciprocated warmly by Debus’s gracious and enveloping left-hand gestures.
Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe ornamented Ferillo’s and flutist Elizabeth Rowe’s nuanced opening fragments of a little intermezzo with swirling C violin arpeggios across the range of instrument. The flute twinkled over an affecting oboe legato, and brief variations were tossed around as Osmin mused about how “torture unabating must be for men awaiting.”
The music ostentatiously ignored the silly man’s fantasies, a critical perspective that needed no verbal elaboration in the text. Cellist Jules Eskin joined the instrumental quartet as Kostanze explored the philosophical meaning of her impending death (“Dying will be never, for virtue must be its own reward”). In this formidably challenging aria, the initial phrases looped around the high soprano register, with legatos lines flowing around the interval high G to high C culminating in a sustained high B as Rowe’s flute toyed gently with her own highest register. Mozart’s orchestration balanced brilliantly the singer’s moral resolve in the face of tragedy, her phrases bedecked by the magnificent playing of Rowe, Eskin, Lowe, and the equally virtuosic clarinet principal, William Hudgins. Up to a high D, down to a low B, then up the octaves to B, then sustained C, and a trill on the high D, Lisette Oropesa sang her heart out, surveying the range of Kostanze’s passions, from love to loss, belief to despair, and resolve to withdrawal in a towering cadenza on “Torture and berate me, impotently hate me, dying will be heaven sent.”
Following dizzying runs by unison strings that ascended to a high, sustained Ab, Debus led the orchestra into a crashing coda. To the burst of applause, he asked the four principals to join Oropesa in her bows. They appeared pleased indeed to accede to his request. This was staged opera at its very zenith, the stuff of which only the Boston Symphony, benefiting from the James Levine’s deep operatic connoisseurship and commitment to blazing upward paths for young singers, can bring out in its summer festival.
Blonde (Emerson) then stole a kiss from Pedrillo and further mashed stereotypes of Englishwomen in a voice that was lighter but as supple and expressive as Oropesa’s, openly worrying about Pedrillo’s courage to put the escape plan in motion. He questioned “Should I listen to my terror, risking life’s fatal error?) and responded to a two-trumpet bugle call with stunning, high assertions of confidence. Time for Step #2 of the abduction strategy!
Carrying large and small bottles of wine (the larger one spiked with a sleeping potion), he fortified himself with a sip from the smaller one and induced Osmin to abandon his dietary obligations and join him in that traditional ceremony of manly brotherhood that sometimes overrides religious proscription. Osmin took the big bottle, and they launched into a hearty drinking song, after Osmin’s lame explanation: “I am converted! Drink gave me the courage, I think.”
To the tune of a Turkish march with bass drum banging, cymbals crashing, woodwinds whirling, they drank away and sang “Hail Alcohol,” “Long Live Bacchus.” Pedrillo steered Osmin to bed, and Belmonte prepared the way for the events to follow in a soppy love song that featuring a refrain redolent of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and lines worthy of an 18th-century Hallmark card: “Kissing these sweet tears away may be a lover’s happiest caress.” Over the top but gorgeous nonetheless, two clarinets in silky legato thirds directed the theme to a splendid quartet. Kostanze and Belmonte teased one another about women’s loyalty, men’s faithlessness, with deliciously matching facial expressions and gestures. Over a 6/8 barcarolle, the vocal ensemble was balanced and elegant. Contrasting sustained chords in the orchestra offset the flowing interior lines of by the bassoon, flute, and oboe, and the second act ended with an superbly stilted exhortation to the team to stay together in the drama sure to follow: “Don’t kindle the ember of jealousy’s rage! Let’s live for love only!”
Belmonte sang to love’s conquering all in a splendid aria at the start of Act Three, shortly before midnight, with variations embedded in arpeggios that swept across, down, and up to the high tenor range. Then came the moment the lovers were waiting for, Pedrillo’s song, signifying that he had placed the ladder to the window of their room in the harem and that the time had come for them to descend and join the escape. Mozart set this up with a glorious orchestral device, which added a measure of visual excitement to the stage version of the opera. The violins and violas placed their instruments across their laps and strummed them as if they were mandolins, yielding a soft wash of lovely, slow strumming, and an exquisite diminuendo down to pianissimo.
But Pedrillo’s melody jolts Osmin from his stupor, and when he realizes what’s going on, he reverts to form, intoning threateningly on the satisfying execrations and executions to follow, with such formidable predictions, as he descends to an ominous, low Bb, of “Slipping off the nooses when, at last, you’re dead,” and growls downward to a funereal low F, “Of my triumph I’ll be singing when they slip your neck an agonizing death.”
After they are captured, Belmonte and Kostanze sing of their undying love, and plead their case to the Pasha, promising a ransom from his noble family, whom he names. Realizing Belmonte’s true identity, the Pasha considers their punishment, both for the escape attempt and for the cruel wrong done him by Belmonte’s father so many years before. The Pasha directs Osmin to prepare their execution, and Belmonte and Kostanze sing a mournful duet of love, regret, and responsibility, underpinned by many diminished chords, building tension yet relaxing into major tonalities, as in the stunning progression from Bb, Ab, B diminished, c minor, Bb 7th in the 6/4 inversion to Eb, bowed broadly in the strings.
Mozart infused into Belmonte’s and Kostanze’s professions of love an aura of anxiety through rapid, running eighth notes and frequent passing harmonies. Their singing arched gracefully over the nervousness of the orchestra with sentiments such as “The cause of love will always surmount death” and “Enduring life without you there would be more than I could bear.” Konstanze’s words “It is a privilege to die with one’s beloved,” expressed in a line ending with a high C, and the words “Divine transfiguration will face annihilation” begin with the high C and descend magnificently to a Bb cadence to the words, “Lost in your loving eyes.” This was voluptuous music, given moving voice by Cutler and Oropesa with exactly the right embellishment by the horns, sweeping down to the final cadence in stately arpeggios.
The Pasha resolved these tensions with the announcement, “I despise your father too much to emulate him. Tell your father I have repaid his cruelty with mercy.” These magnanimous words brought forth a fast-paced vocal quartet confection that your reviewer described in his notes as “very G + S.” The music, perfectly apposite to the delight and relief of the characters, brought smiles to everyone, and a realization that in but 36 years of life, Mozart gave us satisfactions that endure through the centuries. His magical linking of story to character to human emotion elevated by music was relived in this performance. Surely as well, Mozart abides in the best works that aspire to tell a story through music on the stage.
July 25, 2010
Pieter Wispelwey’s tour de force at Ozawa Hall on July 22, 2010, comprised all six of the J.S. Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, offered in three sets, with two intermissions and a single encore. His quiet repeating of the opening Prelude after the well-deserved final ovation gave a sweet symmetry to the evening’s expanding cascades of gorgeous sound, intense illuminations of the contrapuntal structures within and across the recurring themes of the succeeding suites, and kaleidoscopic expressions of connection with his magnificent instrument. (These included spontaneous facial expressions that reflected not only shadings of tonality but snippets of conversation among the upper, middle, and lower voices of the inventions.) Wispelwey’s thoughtful performance was powered and magnified by his intelligent, even experimental exploitation of the hall’s remarkably resonant acoustics. At the end of this fulfilling evening, his sounding again that familiar theme with neither dynamic swelling nor vibrato trembling gave solace to performer and listener alike, much as Bach’s humble restatement of the beginning Aria permits a virtuoso pianist to close the Goldberg Variations with such calm after the jousting in the preceding competitive clamor. But this occurred three hours later, a long distance from Glenn Gould’s 51-minute “slow version” of the Goldberg.
Wearing black tuxedo pants, a formal white shirt, and a cream-colored silk vest, Wispelwey cut an elegant, athletic figure. Taking this on from memory must be an exhausting intellectual, psychological, and physical marathon for the cellist – Heartbreak Hills loom everywhere – but there were few clues of flagging energy. Wispelwey appeared to relish every moment, and he carried the audience with him.
He began by emphasizing the bass contours of the Prelude and appeared to be studying the idiosyncratic resonances of the performance space even as he focused like a laser on every sound. As the movement proceeded, it became evident that he was actually using the auditorium as an extension of his instrument. (This gave new meaning to the chamber musician’s career accomplishment, playing Ozawa Hall.) A sustained high D, sounded without vibrato, cut through the space, before a set of exquisitely formed, rapid scales descended in a gentle sweeps to their roots on the contrapuntal bass line, C, B, A, and G. The high G reverse pedal point that followed turned the variation on its head, arpeggios and legato internal voices ringing a tribute to Bach’s compositional genius. All this on just one four-string instrument! The experience was comparable to our listening to one of Bach’s trio sonatas on the legendary 1745 organ in the Church of Saint-Séverin on the Left Bank of the Seine. This concert began with a sense of solemn occasion.
The audience sat totally still during the first Allemande, and each note, every embellishment, seemed to jump across and around the room in a miraculously conjured cascade of sound. In contrast to the Prelude, the mood was cooler, more rational, and more intensely focused. Wispelwey appeared to study every single note and phrase, turning his gaze side-to-side as complementary lines answered and elaborated one another.
The 3/4 Courante saw the unexpected advent of some unintended harmonics in the fast-tempo phrases where skittering high-notes flew around the downbeats. This imperfection provided a comforting sense that this sublimely twirling technical feat was being performed by a mere mortal. In the end, Wispelwey focused attention to the rhythmic syncopations that jazzed up the contrapuntal voices before they descended to that broadly bowed, confidently-asserted low G. The audience seemed to hold its collective breath, and the hall responded to the thrill of the performance with a fine and happy echo.
The first Sarabande of this evening featured romantic rubatos, dramatic dynamics, and strong, low double stops, played as tiny arpeggios. It closed with an affecting pianissimo. A stunning, accelerated 6/8 gigue gave a dramatic ending to the first Suite, provoking a burst of applause and shouts of delight from the crowd.
Tempo variations colored the second Suite in D minor, with a Prelude distinguished by a stately grandeur; a warmer and more sentimental Allemande; and a rollicking, rapid Courante marked by expansive phrases and cut with dramatic pauses. A deliciously contemplative Sarabande featured trills that emphasized the emotional pulls of the melodic anticipations and suspensions, giving a sympathetic, human quality to the strongly articulated counterpoint. It ended in a settling diminuendo of elegantly bowed octaves, from high to low D. After a pair of contrasting Minuets, one formal with a triumphal, stately ending, one starting with and sustained by a sprightly up-tempo, a stunningly rapid Gigue brought the Suite to dizzy, exciting close. To say the audience was pleased would be an equally dramatic understatement. People looked at one another with amazement, and the sober fellow following the score in a seat in front of your reviewer broke into a happy smile.
Harmonic variety propelled the Prelude of the Third Suite in C. A set of descending proclamations of the possibilities inherent in the C major scale were expressed with seriousness and clarity, and over a low G pedal point, the voices sketched out the progression G 7th, C, G 7th, G 9th. Bach is nothing if not courageous in allowing the lines to create surprising, if logical, dissonances. Spiccato bowing punched out the rhythmic foundation of the dancing Allemande that followed, with trills and turns that emphasized rather than detracted from the thrust of the melodic lines. Playful excursions back and forth from the relative minor harmony were expressed with lightly sustained low As before transforming back to a final cadence drew down to a diamond-clear C major 10th bowed arpeggio.
Wispelwey began the Gigue that followed with restraint, drawing attention to the unfolding rhythmic structure (6/8), and he eschewed technical display to the service of illuminating the brilliant bones of one of Bach’s most satisfying creations. Then, marvelously, he let it all hang out, with whirling, thrusting, intersecting lines, double-stopped grace-notes, and burly, deep, guttural rhythmic patterns that complemented billowing melodies in the upper register. The joyous dance cooled quickly from high heat to a fine, tempered, pianissimo conclusion.
Clearly, this was serious fun, and in the next section of the concert, beginning with Suite No. 4 in E-flat, Wispelwey seemed to be more at ease, his emerging sense of humor helped along by Mother Nature. During the Prelude after the intermission, Wispelwey offset succulent cantabiles with precisely chiseled devices. He was aided and delighted by the antics of a large moth that collided with his left hand and bounced to the podium, where he completed his dance with a few low jumps before falling exhausted to the floor. As if to mourn the exit of the little fellow, the exquisitely melodic Sarabande was uttered with just a touch of vibrato on the heads of some sustained notes and the tails of others. And then, during a bustling Bourée, Wispelwey bowed zippy strokes of five notes each with sizzling zest, lifting his legs and rocking subtly back and forth, all the while giving emphasis to the middle line of the counterpoint. He supported the 12/8 meter of the ensuing Gigue with a veritable dance with the cello, tapping his right foot in the joy of it all.
Wispelwey burned the final, sustained, low Eb with a brilliant trill that, the sober fellow in front graciously confirmed during the cheering that followed it, was definitely not in the manuscript. Nor, for that matter, are any of the embellishments, it should be noted. Bach left the details to the devils of inspiration, imagination, and impulse.
All were on vivid display in this concert, and yet a new interpretive opportunity presented itself in the Prelude of the Fifth Suite in C minor. A hungry, winged animal settled on the left temple of the cellist. Bow in hand, he swatted it with impressive accuracy. The beast fell to the podium. Wispelwey looked down seriously, found the creature, and held it up for examination by the cheering crowd. Not since the most recent Tanglewood appearance of the Toreador Escamillo, in Carmen, it may be averred, has a classical artist so impressed an audience with his carnivorous propensities. It was not for nothing that William Rawn, the architect, designed the barn door at the rear of the hall to stay open during concerts.
This suite’s Allemande was given in a sweet, light C minor, with only occasional vibrato. This was performed with special intensity on notes that held the greatest melodic and harmonic directionality. Similarly, in the Sarabande, serious, long notes underpinned the marvelous chromatic progression B-flat, B-natural, G, C, the elegance of the counterpoint suggesting a far-sighted harmonic vision. The ending, on an unadorned vibrato-less C, was no less inspired. And the Gigue, replete with appealing flourishes, concluded with a sweeping, one-handed, huge, open C, that brought the cellists in the audience, and no few others, to their feet.
Finally, in the third section of the concert, there were some problems. These appeared during the complex Prelude of the Sixth Suite, with its 3/8-6/8 sense of meter, lines emphasizing thirds and sixths that surveyed A Major to D to G minor to E minor to B minor to Bb to Eb in the space of what seemed like seconds, playful chromatic cadenzas, heaped one on the other, challenging any performer’s sense of time and harmonic location. It was here that the a few intonation lapses presented in the high register, a sure sign of incipient exhaustion.
But then, immediate recovery! An astounding arpeggiate cadenza began, with 6/8 pedal-point Bb repeats on the progression Eb, Eb, Ab, F, Bb, Eb. One held one’s breath again. Could Wispelwey sustain this? Here, he looked pained, concentrating hard on the very slow, singing line of the Allemande.
The treble meter of the Courante was offered light, dry, and ephemeral, giving way to one of the most moving events of the evening, a prayerful Sarabande, sans vibrato, that came across as a reverie on the lives of the great cellists. Casals, who brought us these masterpieces? Rostropovich, who dedicated weeks of effort to find the right church, with the right resonances, and hired the right engineers to record his own, reverential version of them? The Concertgebouw Orchestra players, who taught his teachers, deported to death camps during the Nazi occupation? Your reviewer took the unexpected opportunity to pose this question as Wispelwey crossed his path on the way to sign CD’s for his gathered fans. Taking the question seriously, he thought a moment and replied, yes, he had in mind the arc of life, but nothing more specific.
Performers with Wispelwey’s commitment, intelligence, and range of expressive abilities are members of a rare species indeed. Tanglewood was graced with the presence of a great master on this evening, and those who shared the privilege of being in the audience will not soon forget it.
July 22, 2010
On July 15, 2010, in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio offered deeply affecting accounts of the Haydn Piano Trio No. 25 in E minor, Hob. XV:12, the Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op.67, and the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66, followed on July 17 in the Shed by a provocative but inconsistent treatment of the Mahler Symphony No. 3 by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, showcasing the brilliant young principals of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, director, and the American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, conductor. The juxtaposition of these two concerts led this reviewer to reflect on Jewishness and music with Mendelssohn and Mahler, which I have addressed in an accompanying article here.
On the heels of the Mahler Second Symphony on July 9, with its whimsical melodic Yiddishisms and Klezmer fiddling and final intoning of a hymn that yearns for heavenly relief from the pain of life and the passionate strivings of love, the Mahler Third appears first as a woodsy, chirping paean to pantheism, transformed at the start of the final movement into a hymn in which the protagonist converses with God, confessing, “I have trespassed against the Ten Commandments,” before finding “Heavenly joy, that has no end. . . By Jesus and for the salvation of all.” This precedes a long musical reflection that evokes the melodic, and especially the harmonic, legacy of Richard Wagner, whose explicit anti-Semitism did not deter Mahler’s life-long infatuation with his music. So, too, does the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 end with a tempestuous fantasia that incorporates allusions both to hymns “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” and J.S. Bach’s polytonal masterpiece on the theme of final judgment, “Before Your Throne I Now Appear” (“Vor deinen Thron”), interwoven with Hebraic major-minor melodic inflections resonating to those struck in its second movement.
The reception of Mahler’s Third Symphony was generally very positive, but on April 15, 1910, one influential French critic, Georges Humbert, editor of La Vie Musicale, ascribed its ‘enigmatic originality’ to the manner in which “these clichés mingle and collide,” that represent, he asserts, “an accurate reflection of his Jewishness.” Mendelssohn and Mahler, however, appeared never to cease being aware of the prejudicial context of their social and cultural worlds. Is it not then logical to surmise that their intentional inclusion of clearly identifiable Jewish and Christian liturgical themes had deep meaning, and that the complexity of some of their most inspired compositions reflected their personal aspirations, struggles, and conflicts? As it happens, both were literate and articulate men, and said so in many words as well as notes. The task at hand is to reflect on the music and performance of these works.
Because the Piano Trio No. 2 by Dmitri Shostakovich, a non-Jew, was performed first in the sequence of works here under review, however, it is appropriate here to note that he composed it in 1944, as the terrible violence of both the Stalin and Hitler regimes toward Russians and Jews was increasingly evident. Notwithstanding his having received the Stalin Prize in 1941 for his piano quintet, Shostakovich’s explicit references to Hebraic themes in the last, so-called “Jewish” movement of this work led to its being banned in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death.
In the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson concert, there was an atmosphere of exquisite gentility. Individually and together, they approached their instruments with a delicacy, never with overtly passionate expressions of physical engagement with the music. But beneath the surface, with one’s eyes closed, one could not but discern a ferocious commitment to every note of the music, and a nearly telepathic reading of the others’ feelings. The surface sheen was smooth and unruffled, but the experience of listening was both profound and revelatory.
The Haydn was played with a kind of respiratory organicity. The music breathed, and unfolded with a wonderful logic. This piano trio is not a simple work, and it carries an unusual polytonality for its day, in the first movement with minor to major ambiguities and harmonic subtleties, from G to E minor, from A 7th to D minor, and from B 7th to E Major in rapid sequence, and a nearly romantic quality. The end of the movement was particularly lovely, with an emotionally settling and fulfilling harmonic descent to C 7th, B 77th and E minor cadences. Kalichstein, using light accents, gave brilliant emphasis to the expressive dynamics of his colleagues.
The second and third movements were equally interesting in harmonic richness and interweaving melodies. This was Haydn at his most masterful, played by virtuosi at the top of their forms. The scampering piano lines of the Rondo Presto, with warm cello countermelodies, and the tempered, ever-engaged expressivity of Laredo’s violin opened and closed phrases with fulsome and satisfying intelligence. Flowing, rapid piano runs, doubled in the violin, toward the end of the third movement, were superbly well coordinated down to the lastfermata, before ending in a delicious decrescendo. Never had Haydn seemed so percipient and confident, and it could not have happened without such visionary ensemble playing.
The Shostakovich began with Robinson’s devastatingly sad high cello harmonics, giving way to a plaintive violin line in the middle range, muted, and descending downward, with the piano, to a low G. The whole range of an unfolding tragedy was forecast in this introduction. Now the cello, with high double stops and lines parallel to the violin’s, provoked a sense of worried contemplation, transmuting with the violin into a spicattosection, the bows bouncing off the strings as the piano, in unison octaves, broke into a mournful contrapuntal line, followed by high, keening violin lines, pizzicato cello, and repeated eighth notes by the strings in a minor tonality.
Many colors, many textures, came quickly, building in volume and intensity and, at the same time, the tempo pulling back as rising lines gave way to dissonant descents. Then folksy, dense, but straightforward melodies, arched over Bartokian scrapings and pizzicatos in the violin and cello. Over the pizzicato strings, Kalichstein sketched thoughtful wisps of legato melodies and chordal phrases before the emergence of a brief, hard, emphatic waltz, and a final return to 4/4 meter and a broadly bowed E minor chord. This was beautiful playing of a rapidly unfolding story of struggle and defeated hope.
The allegro non troppo beginning of the next movement rang with Eastern European resonances of Khatchaturian and much-admired Stravinsky, with swinging, scraping, groaning strings, and repeated dotted eighth/16th note repetitions. Kalichstein hit a series of ascending eighth notes with the middle finger of his left hand in an off-hand display of virtuosity, giving each note a clarion quality that deftly elevated the mood.
In the Largo that followed, dissonant, minor chords grouped around B minor, C# minor, and F# minor in a tragic confluence, and Laredo intoned the first of a series of dramatically-extended Hebraic lines, minor, transforming legatos over simple, sustained chords. Robinson’s cello sang a prayerful transliteration of one of these lines, giving way to powerful chords expressed by both strings. Now the strings squeezed out a sad melody with evident Jewish sensibility, that bore little resemblance to the pleasant, village schmaltz of the Mahler Second Symphony.
This was serious, the stuff of oppression and suffering. A wisp of the Kol Nidre hymn from the Yom Kippurliturgy expanded into a touching, extended theme of prayer, the reverie interrupted by a weird dance with rapid pizzicatos in the violin, left-hand piano rhythms, and then, cello pizzicatos that morphed into bowed parallel fifths over another, unmistakably Hebraic theme by the piano. Through folksy rhythms and bold, diatonic harmonies (F maj., E maj., F maj., E maj., E mi., C maj., G maj., C maj., Db maj.) the development of this theme proceeded through violin, then cello, then piano rhythmic variations, then sawing, mean tritones in the cello, and, suddenly, a passionate cello line that arched over broad piano arpeggios.
The violin jumped into the dance, intending, perhaps, to rescue the cello from the tragic juggernaut, and the passage ended with a sweet, comforting C major cadence. Brilliant, confusing, emotionally layered music, that felt the more devastating because of the trio’s astounding restraint. They knew this music and clearly felt no need to declaim its ineluctable progression toward annihilation.
So the ominous piano left hand rumbles that followed came as no surprise, as the bit of dancing over a light, rhythmic groove by the violin morphed into savage tritones, growing louder and louder. Kalichstein pressed hard, the violin and cello protested in response, sounding the dance again, but the devil was on to them.
Suddenly there was another moment of light, a clear, open piano line reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony, stated slowly, with nearly unbearable intensity. Hebraic inflections in the high violin register signaled a hope of God’s rescue, but the tempo accelerated as rapid, downward arpeggios blew the ensemble apart. Each instrument voiced its separate distress, the violin in spicatto, the cello in sliding, slipping glissandos, and the piano in independent flight across the keyboard. Then suddenly, in unison, the violin and cello came together again in unison in, repeated, and yet again repeated set of Hebraic phrases.
The story, so elegantly, yet forcefully, expressed, drew to its inexorable close with harmonies voiced in the cello over low piano figures. They grew to a liturgical progression (B minor to Gb Major) with violin and cello pizzicatos in Gb Major tonality expiring softly over a deep Gb in the piano. The horror gave way in the end to a philosophical awareness of life’s immutable meaning, and after sustained applause, the intermission began with an unusual quieting of the crowd.
Out on the Ozawa Hall loggia, near the stage door, Yo-Yo Ma, Joseph Silverstein, and Emmanuel Ax, as formidable a piano trio as one can imagine in a concert audience, were conversing intensely with their friends. This memorable Tanglewood scene speaks for itself.
Concluding the concert, the second Mendelssohn Piano Trio was brought out with zest and excitement. Virtuoso piano runs with string accents were voiced with stunning dynamic variations, giving nuanced emphasis to the quick harmonic transitions from major to minor and back. Laredo’s and Robinson’s sublimely expressive playing evinced personal involvement with every one of Mendelssohn’s melodic experiments, and Kalichstein’s technical virtuosity, in one particularly stunning rapid descending line, was magnificently calibrated not to overweigh his colleagues.
The second movement, with its deliciously ambiguous, shifting 6/8 and 9/8 rhythmic sensibility, began with a gorgeous, waltzy theme, voiced over subtle, internal lines that played with the treble rhythms. A minor interlude suggested a bit of happy Jewishness. It resolved, however, in the major. The counterpoint here was reminiscent of the perfection one hears in Beethoven at his most confident and mature, the inflected, fascinating, lines breathing life into soaring romantic phrases, here splendidly nuanced with just the right swellings and diminuendos by this wonderful ensemble.
Kalichstein’s musicality, continuous adjusting his dynamics to fit the ensemble, graced the third movement with liquid right hand lines, swirling phrases, and astounding, sudden shifts in volume. Pizzicato strings accompanied the finale of this little piano concerto.
Mendelssohn’s proclamation of a happy conversion to Lutheranism informed the fourth movement, beginning with major/minor harmonic shifts at a flowing 6/8 tempo, and B 7th pause before the statement of “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past.” A few Jewish themes flowed in and out of its development, cheerily resolving in a G 7th/C cadence. The hymn returned triumphant, notwithstanding the intrusion of fierce, diminished arpeggios, and a cold, clear, C major tonality, stood its ground.
The extent to which this trio tells Mendelssohn’s own story, as I explain in the accompanying article, may be a matter for conjecture, but this intensely sympathetic reading yielded inescapably to a sense of deep personal meaning, both to the composer and to the players. This was chamber music at its exalted best, giving satisfactions both emotional and intellectual, notwithstanding the disturbing themes and countercurrents.
By contrast, the Mahler Third under Michael Tilson Thomas, gave pointed emphasis to the individual virtuosity of a number of Tanglewood Fellows, and to great extent the whole was sublimated to its parts. This is a work that is full of episodes, presenting no few challenges to its conductor to pull together a coherent narrative arc. Especially during the long contemplation at the very end, the orchestra seemed often to meander. But there were numerous satisfactions, indeed.
In the first movement, splendid horn fanfares and bursts of tympani (two sets!) gave way to dynamically-nuanced, melodic lines that extended from affectingly soft-edged contrabassoon (Thomas DeWitt) to warmly expressive mezzopiano tuba (Landres Bryant) to well-blended, muted trumpets to magnificent unison phrases by the entire horn section over sustained D minor strings. The forest was lovely, with many quick, delightful solo turns from the first trombone, with its marvelously expressive natural vibrato (Samuel Schlosser), the sweetly singing English horn (Kristina Goettler) that gave relief after an unusually shaggy entrance by the woodwind ensemble, and the superbly talented concert mistress (Breana Bauman).
Schlosser’s trombone gave a fabulous accounting of one of the most exposed challenges to the low brass in the Mahler oeuvre, an extended melody developed with heart-rending, romantic circles in the middle trombone range, through harmonies shaded by excursions through D minor, D major, and back. One was reminded of theUlricht hymn in the last movement of the Second Symphony, with its yearning for relief, as Mahler put it in his own words, from the passionate strivings of love.
After a lovely oboe statement by Sarah Lewis, whose English horn distinguished the Webern setting of theRicercare from Bach’s Musical Offering the previous week in Ozawa Hall, a fine post-horn solo by David Cohen heralded a march that shone a spotlight on sprightly melodies and fascinating polytonalities and forward-looking chromaticisms. The orchestral playing was impressive, and Michael Tilson Thomas bounced on his toes, seemingly in tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s Tanglewood legacy. Thomas, however, for reasons known only to himself, kept hushing the brass, just as the martial spirit called for them to cry out. Bernstein certainly would have called for more!
Velvet sounds from Schlosser’s trombone returned later in the movement, in a melody that descended to a fine, strong, resonant low E in seventh position, an uncommonly beautiful note in the awkward depth of this saucy instrument, whose simplicity betrays its challenges to serious classical expression. Virtually every sustained note was burnished by vibrato, with nary a shake of the slide. Tommy Dorsey, playing his iconic theme song at the height of his powers in the 1930’s, could not have accomplished this, seduced as he was, and as most commercial players still are, by the easy, sexy vibrato that the lubricious slide offers the trombone player. Such convincing, natural vibrato as Schlosser’s is difficult to accomplish and to sustain, and he served this entire movement memorably.
Martial themes poked through the forestial and riverine landscape at odd intervals, counterposing aggressive human strivings with the equilibrium of nature, where the temple of Mahler’s idealized world is found. In the arc of Mahler’s symphony composition, this is perhaps his most intuitively comprehensible work, with fewer complexities and struggles than the others. The offstage drums and horns, Ivesian intersections of marching bands, blasts of percussion and brass, firm platforms for instrumental display, and straightforward structure, make for more than an hour of satisfied listening.
In its vocal passages, starting with the chime imitation by the boy choir, their ding-dong syllables heartily welcomed by the women choristers, the Symphony then lifts its sight toward God in Heaven. Mahler’s words, as noted in the second paragraph of this review, appear to celebrate his abandonment of his Jewish faith to the promise of Christian salvation. In this performance, the mezzo, Karen Cargill, possessed of a lovely, dark, and shimmering instrument, used her powers superbly in giving voice to Friederich Neitzsche’s summoning of Nature’s message to man:
Oh man, give heed!
These provocative texts and this powerful music surely do not solve the paradoxes we face in being human; our yearnings for love, acceptance, and spiritual meaning, if not transformation exist side-by-side with our proclivities toward cruelty, destruction, and mindless exploitation of the natural world around us. But there is, perhaps, no better way than through music to pose these big questions. These evenings of music gave pause to acknowledge our common humanity, with all its manifest imperfections.
July 22, 2010
Mahler, born into a Jewish family, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1896 in order to preserve his career as a conductor, at a time when anti-Semitism became the norm of Germanic cultural identity and law. (1)
Mendelssohn’s father Abraham, son of the Enlightment philosopher and Jewish sage, Moses Mendelssohn, converted to Lutheranism and added the hyphenation of Bartholdy, the name of a piece of land purchased by his brother-in-law to buffer his Jewish surname. He angrily rebuked his son for calling himself “Felix Mendelssohn” in concert programs in the 1820’s, in these words:
A name is like a garment; it has to be appropriate for the time, the use, and the rank, if it is not to become a hindrance and a laughing-stock. … There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius. If Mendelssohn is your name, you are ipso facto a Jew.
Felix Mendelssohn, who had been baptized a Christian in 1816, did not cease to do so, because he admired the legacy of his grandfather, but out of respect to his father had his calling cards printed with the Bartholdy hyphenation. (2)
In the recently-translated, fourth volume of his magnum opus on Mahler, the magnificent “Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short (1907-1911),” Henry-Louis de La Grange sheds light on both Felix Mendelssohn’s respect for the legacy of Moses Mendelssohn, and the influence of his grandfather, both on Mahler’s own father and the life of the village of Iglau in Moravia, near the Czech border, where Mahler grew up. The author notes that “The Czech provinces were the place of origin of many of the more sophisticated Jewish immigrants in Vienna, just as they had also been the home of a ‘Reform Catholicism’. Here ‘Jews could experience at first hand a tolerant, human, humanist attitude, even from the Catholic church.’” (p. 471) (2, 3) “Iglau’s Jewish community . . . witnessed the birth and rise of a new trend in Judaism, the Haskalah, which in the 1760’s and 1770’s was one of the many consequences of the ‘Enlightenment” movement and its philosophy of religious tolerance. The main leader and inspirer of the Haskalah was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was admired throughout Germany as a ‘wise man’, a ‘sage’, and a humanist. He was referred to as ‘the German Socrates . . . and praised to the skies by his followers for ‘having inaugurated an era of light after one of darkness’, and for having ‘brought the Jewish people from folly to wisdom, fostered the Hebrew language, fought Talmudic casuistry and acted as a messenger of ‘Providence’.” (p. 472)
This intriguing link in the background of Felix Mendelssohn’s and Gustav Mahler’s struggles with and against their Jewish identity is explored in detail by de La Grange. He notes that after his death, Moses Mendelssohn was mourned by a huge following of both Jews and non-Jews. Included in the sage’s vision was a departure from the traditional linkages of Jewish religion and learning toward a secularization that the Haskalah movement characterized as “an ideal synthesis of loyalty to Judaism and involvement in general culture and society.” (p. 472) This separation from Jewish tradition was embraced by Mahler’s father, Bernhard, who, in de la Grange’s telling, decided to raise his whole family in accord with the Mendelssohnian principle of Haskalah.
Notwithstanding this optimism, subsequent historical events dashed Mahler’s and many other artists’, professionals’, scientists’, and philosphers’ hopes for integration as Jews in Germanic society. The 1885 General Election in Austria brought to power a popular demagogue, Karl Lueger, an ally of the author of racial clauses in his socialist “Linz Program,” Georg von Schonerer. This victory, de la Grange asserts, “sounded the death knell for Austrian liberalism, and thereby served to end any hope of true assimilation that many Jews may still have harboured. . .Although many Jews had unconsciously yearned to become part of the Christian world, the general feeling now was ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew,’ and Jewish integration into the ‘Aryan’ world seemed impossible. Espousal of Protestantism was the frequently preferred solution, and it was the option chosen by Viktor Adler . . .Arnold Schoenberg, Bruno Walter, and Arnold Rose, amongst many others. The legal status of Christianity was thereby conferred without any recourse to Catholicism, and in the event of marriage there was no need for a religious ceremony to take place.” (p. 484)
Mahler, who married his wife, Alma Schindler, in a Roman Catholic service, made only one known statement about his conversion.
Do you know what particularly offends and annoys me? The fact that it was impossible to occupy an official post without being baptized. This is something I have never been prepared to accept. Of course it is untrue to say that I was baptized only when the opportunity arose for my engagement in Vienna – I was baptized years before. In fact it was my longing to escape from the hell of Hamburg under Pollini that prompted me to contemplate the idea of leaving the Jewish community. That is the humiliating part of it. I do not deny that it cost me a great effort, indeed one could say it was an instinct for self-survival that prompted me to such an action. Inwardly I was not averse to the idea at all. (p.484)
de La Grange appends to this quotation the following revealing footnote, that speaks to the personal and moral conflicts Mahler was forced to endure to sustain his conducting career: “For understandable reasons, Mahler wrongly claimed to have converted ‘years before’ his Vienna appointment. He was in fact baptized in Hamburg on 23 Feb. 1896, and appointed Kapellmeister at the Hofoper on 8 April. Further, his aim in struggling to be appointed in Vienna was not only to escape from Pollini’s ‘hell’.” (pp. 484-485)
The reception of Mahler’s Third Symphony was generally very positive, but on April 15, 1910, one influential French critic, Georges Humbert, editor of La Vie Musicale, ascribed its ‘enigmatic originality’ to the manner in which “these clichés mingle and collide,” that represent, he asserts, “an accurate reflection of his Jewishness:” (p. 528)
Not that he is a unique member of this powerful, fecund, and marvelously talented race, with a will which senses when it is opportune to be supple. He is an artist who is primarily concerned to assimilate, in spite of being obstinate and inflexible. Here his is sweetly Italianate. There he is the clever director of a chaos on which he projects a very bright light. He resembles both Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, and often reveals that he has a similar temperament, even though he lives in a different age, and uses different means. (p. 529)
Now in 2010, your present reviewer, whose grandparents fled the violent anti-Semitism of Austria-Hungary and Russia in the interval between Mahler’s conversion and the premiere of his Third Symphony, would pose two questions: “What’s a Roman Catholic lantzman to do?” and “What’s the relevance to the music?” (note: Lantzman means “fellow countryman” or “fellow Jew” in the Yiddish spoken in these provinces.)
To the first question, there can be no answer, and surely no condemnation of the exigent accommodations that Mendelssohn and Mahler made to prevailing anti-Semitism, except perhaps to express gratitude that one’s forbears took leave of this mishigas (craziness). The world is a harsh place if you’re not a bona fide member of the favored ethnic majority or minority, and no one could have foreseen the destructive energies unleashed by racial “science” later in the 20th century in these very countries.
To the second question, the answer must be: nothing, and everything. Music is ephemeral, disappearing into the ether once the sounds are heard. What we interpret as musical narrative is our own. We can never know what anyone else hears and how they make meaning of it. Neither can we know how external attributions affect our, and others’, listening experiences. If you never knew that Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, you might enjoy his wonderful music only on the basis of how it sounds. Leonard Bernstein, to whom this annual concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra is dedicated, once was asked how he could love Wagner. He replied: “I hate Wagner – on my knees.”
July 15, 2010
With three concerts that focused on the vivid linkages between late romantic and modern classical composition, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival embraced its official opening weekend. On the Friday, July 9, it offered a “prelude concert” by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Ozawa Hall, immediately prior to the evening’s main event, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, in the Shed. Under John Oliver’s baton and with special guest, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, the chorus and conductor celebrated their 40th anniversary together with five delicious, harmonically-complex a cappela works: Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans, Poulenc’s Quatre Petites Prieres de Saint Francois d Assise, Francaix’s Trois Poemes de Paul Valery, Ravel’s Trois Chansons, and Poulenc’s cantata, “La Figure Humaine. They were supported in the latter by a fine contrabassist, Thomas Van Dyck. Then, substituting for James Levine, who was recovering from back surgery is not expected to return to the podium until after the summer, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the BSO in its first concert of the season, with soloists Blythe and Layla Claire featured in the Mahler. A thoughtfully-conceived Monday concert propelled the perspective forward with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra offering Anton Webern’s transcription of the Ricercare from J.S. Bach’s “Musical Offering,” conducted by Christian Macelaru; Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, D.485, conducted by Keitaro Harada; and Strauss’s orchestral suite from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” Opus 60, conducted by Alexander Prior.
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Technical challenges affected both Friday concerts, but the musicians rose to the occasion and overcame them. On the Ozawa stage, the stationing of the chorus across the fixed, broadly-concave risers limited the singers’ abilities to hear one another, producing some awkward excursions from intonation and balance, particularly in the inner voices. Had they been singing in a tighter concave formation, this would probably have been avoided. Notwithstanding, the Debussy and Ravel suites glowed with emotion and excitement, indeed elevated to a higher, even transcendent, plane, when, in the second movements of each work, Stephanie Blythe contributed her immense, glowing, rich, subtly-modulated, and exquisitely articulated voice to the proceedings. (Blythe worked similar magic in the title role of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein by Jacques Offenbach at Opera Boston in May, bringing lesser singers to peak performance, even as she risked upstaging them.)
The Poulenc World War II cantata, La Figure Humaine, a strikingly original and enduring choral work that intones and proclaims the text of “Liberte” by Paul Eluard, ended the vocal program with power and passion. Dropped by the planeload over Nazi-occupied France by the Royal Air Force, this famous poem is a mounting litany of metaphors of suffering and hope that closes emphatically with a strong and dangerous declamation of the cherished word, Liberty, itself. Beneath the bustle and excitement of Poulenc’s musical setting, the chorus dug heartily into the dense chromaticisms down to the last shouting major chord. Pity the soprano who took a daring shot at the high octave and missed, but give her an A for courage and John Oliver and the chorus a richly-deserved ovation. Never has such an ensemble, to paraphrase Churchill, served so many, for so long, for so little compensation, excepting travel expenses and the reward of filling our ears with inspired song.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Once seated in the Shed, as the large crowd settled into silence after greeting Michael Tilson Thomas warmly, another challenge presented itself. For members of the audience un-inured to the hum of the African vuvuzela during the World Cup soccer playoffs in the previous weeks, a continuous hum emitted from the large, high speaker banks to the right and left of the stage. From Row J of Section 6 in the center of the hall, it was really noisome, and lasted, amazingly, through the entire first movement before suddenly turning off mid-way through the second. After the first movement ended, there was brief applause. When the crowd quieted down, Thomas looked first to his left and then to his right, searching, it appeared, for someone to shut the hum off. Shrugging his shoulders and appearing perplexed, he plowed ahead.
Bad move. He might, had he been aware of the event, taken the cue from Mahler himself. On first arriving in the rehearsal hall of the New York Symphony, the renowned conductor heard the sounds of other musicians’ practicing wafting through the building. Only when the others stopped, he declared, would the rehearsal start. Such confidence and leadership would have been welcome here. One was left to wonder who was in charge of the hall.
James Levine was surely missed at the first summer concert of his orchestra. During the stunning first movement of Symphony No. 2, the closing, heroic arc of Symphony No. 1 is extended. Mahler intended it this way. Levine, who brought the First so powerfully to its spectacular close in a moving performance in the Shed in 2008, would have made this obvious. Those horn cries, that charging hero theme, those sparkling woodwinds, the rumbles and brass outbursts that portend big trouble ahead, were tempered by background noise and by the distressing realization that no-one in a position to rescue the players and audience appeared to be listening, and by the initial hesitancy of the evening’s conductor.
But the principals and sections of the Orchestra played their hearts out and redeemed the evening. They know this work intimately, and from the outset, individual players and sections brought out its exquisite shadings and dramatic dynamics without requiring specific cues. Unlike Levine, who intensely engages with the musicians and reciprocates special contributions with his eyes and hands from a seated position on a high arm-chair, Thomas focuses less on the musicians than on the big picture, evincing a personal engagement with the emotional unfolding with gestures reminiscent of great conductors of the past, rising on his toes, heaving side to side, seizing violently to moments of crisis (Leonard Bernstein) and sweeping the baton in a right-to-left horizontal line in the third beat of every measure of particular flowing passages (Charles Munch). His cues telegraphed the general direction of the responses he sought, even as he paid most attention to superstructure of the symphony, most of which he conducted from memory. The end result was gratifying indeed. For all its sturm und drang and churning complexities, the symphony drew one in, yielded clearly to intuitive understanding, and reached its final summoning apotheosis in what in retrospect seemed but a flash of time.
High points in the first movement included Robert Sheena’s and Toby Oft’s legato English horn and trombone lines that soared over the martial underpinning, reminding the listener of the hero’s struggles in the First Symphony, the perfectly articulated descending lines of Mike Roylance’s powerful but nuanced tuba, Thomas Rolf’s sadly whimsical major sixths, giving unusual reflective substance to the simple bugle call, and the delicious portamentos and glissandi in the violins and cellos that signaled the shtetl roots of the composer, conductor, and some of the players, all of whom dug into them with relish.
Superb ensemble work was evident in the brass, with Rolfs and Thomas Siders, the newly appointed assistant principal trumpet, blending with exquisite clarity and delicacy in proclamations early in the movement, legato lines in its center, and the sustained pianissimi in the final 16 measures, before the harmony suddenly mutates from C major to C minor in the space of four beats, a stunning excursion from pianississimo to fortissimo and back, by oboists John Ferrillo and Keisuke Wakao, declaiming authoritatively the major and minor thirds before the movement comes crashes a close in a furious chromatic fortissimo descent to a unison C, followed by a piano, and then a pianissimo C in just the woodwinds over pizzicato strings.
Midway through the second movement, the continuous hum from the high speakers finally stopped. Relief! Instantly, the harp shone with real sparkle and the pizzicato contrabasses, one of the iconic sounds of the Tanglewood shed, at last resonated across their distinctive spectrum. This blessed event occurred shortly before the introduction of Mahler’s familiar Tchaikovskian theme that features schmaltzy appoggiaturas. After this brief interval of easy satisfaction and emotional tranquility, the solo harp, Jessica Zhou, playing a splendidly-controlled ascending arpeggio, diminishing from piano to pianississimo, brought the movement to a gentle ending, again with two soft pizzicatos in the strings.
Finally, silence reigned (although the audience applauded again) and the dreaded vuvuzela did not reappear.
Mezzo Stephanie Blythe and soprano Layla Claire entered, wearing contrasting gowns, the one a lovely olive green with matching woven shawl, the other with a creamy top and sequined black skirt. Then, shortly after the beginning of the movement, astoundingly liquid solo, duo, and trio clarinet work by William Hudgins, Michael Wayne, and Thomas Martin, provoked new respect for Mahler’s masterful use of the whole section as an expressive voice, and the superb teamwork among these virtuosi. The trumpet section, in gently-voiced, beautifully-balanced legato lines reciprocated this shortly afterward over rapid arpeggios by both harps. The conductor, reaching for dramatic gesture to the limits of his arms and feet, seemed not to notice these sublime contributions, however.
The magnificent final movement, takes its vocal text from a long poem from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) works, and expresses a yearning for relief from life’s struggles and death’s rigors, beginning, in the translation that accompanies the orchestral score in the 1987 Dover Press republication of the 1897 Josef Weinberger edition, with text from the Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock poems “Urlicht” (Primal Light) and “Aufferstehung” (Resurrection). Here are excerpts:
“O little red rose!
Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
How much rather would I be in Heaven!”
“To bloom again are you sown.
The lord of the harvest goes
And gathers sheaves,
Us, who died.
Then Mahler’s own words follow. Here is the final passage:
“O Sorrow, all-penetrating!
I have been wrested away from you!
O Death, all-conquering!
Now you are conquered!
With wings that I won
In the passionate strivings of love
I shall mount
To that light to which no sight has penetrated!
I shall die, so as to live!
Arise again, yes, you will arise from the dead,
My heart, in an instant!
What you have conquered
Will bear you to God!
(Note: The Dover edition translation is much more satisfying than the one offered in the program, the latter positing the stilted – if politically correct — “Mankind” in place of “Man,” and “In love’s ardent struggle” for Mahler’s own phrase, “In the passionate strivings of love.”)
The minor choral hymn that projects these aspirations was preceded by a repeating phrase in alternate measures of 3/4 and 4/4 meter, sung by Stephanie Blythe with moving understatement and subtle dynamics. Her gorgeous, velvety, enormous sound was marshaled perfectly to the text and to the shifting tonalities of Bb minor to Bb major tonalities. This reviewer wrote in his notes at that moment: “The sun has come out.”
And then, within a second, Tanglewood Son et Lumiere! As if by magic, the lights in the entire shed rose to at least half-strength and stayed that way until the end of the performance. The skeptic in one might recall the devilish moment three seasons before, when, during Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony under Levine’s direction, the lawn sprinklers went on, drenching hundreds. The resulting stir required a long pause before the shed that housed the faucets was identified and the sprinklers were turned off. (Teenaged pranksters were alleged to have been responsible for this incident.) No further gremlins appeared on this particular evening, nor were artistic culprits publically identified. (We await with anxious anticipation a performance of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)
To clashing minor chords after the appearance of the sun, two French horn players rushed of the stage. The Left stage door opened, and after a pause, a series of horn calls emanated, echoed across the stage by oboe, trumpet, horn, and harp. The violins fluttered with seeming worry, and an ominous solo trombone sounded over the rumble of the tympani. A minor-key folk-melody in the flute, clarinet, and oboe appeared over pizzicato strings, and superb solo trombone and trumpet calls reprised the off-stage horn calls.
Here, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus began the slow hymn a cappela, as quietly as possible, on the familiar liturgical cadence of dominant, subdominant, and dominant chords. The blend was exquisite, and the subsequent underpinning of contrabass gave the listener a jolt of remembrance of the “Liberte” in the prelude concert that utilized this most apposite orchestration device. The repeated phrases of the simple, diatonic melody (so different from the 20th century modernisms of the Poulenc cantata) exerted an powerful sensory and emotional effect, and the simple chromatic modulations, by the half step, only increased the intensity. Just when one thought that choral singing doesn’t get better than this, a restatement of the melody transposed down was joined by the contrabasses and Layla Claire, whose sweet, unprepossessing, but insufficiently strong voice could not quite project the softer passages to the center of the hall. Yet this gave Mahler’s expression of human frailty and transitory existence a striking humanity and verisimilitude. One did not have to hear every one of Claire’s words to sympathize with her, and to recognize our own, fates. One lives for such moments of transcendent music-making, where performers and audience are brought to a such an exalted plane of human existence and when human experience is ennobled by music.
Michael Tilson Thomas was much less flamboyant here, sedate, in keeping with the mood. In the end, there was need neither for acrobatics or histrionics. Blythe, her huge voice resolving perfectly intoned appoggiaturas, pleading, “Oh believe,” the male choristers intoning “I shall fly upwards,” and the splendid orchestra, fully capable of elevating the spirit to an assurance of enduring life.
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Conducted and prepared superbly by Christian Macelaru, Anton Webern’s orchestral adaptation of the Ricercare movement of Bach’s Musical Offering blazed with interest. The melodic and contrapuntal lines were distributed across a variety of instruments, not one line to each instrument, but pieces of lines, single notes, short arcs, and rows (rows, ye modernists!), that together made perfect sense, even if you hadn’t heard this kind of Bach before. The counterpoint, sometimes straightforward, often dense, gleamed with kaleidoscopic color, and layers on layers of thin and thick texture waved and contracted and unfurled again. Here was the master in his most confident, magisterial authority, seen through the lens of a Schoenberg disciple, who was in turn a Mahler devotee, preoccupied with the beauty and distinctiveness of individual musical tones and lines. One was reminded of James Levine’s stunning presentation of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder four Tanglewood seasons ago, with its visionary perspectives, both forward and backward, glorious palette of orchestral colors, and concentration on tonal beauty. The forces here were tiny by comparison, but the vision was comparable. One could witness both the profundity of Bach’s compositional achievement and anticipate Webern’s smaller but strikingly original modernism.
The conductor drew from each soloist splendid expressions of their small and large commitments. Meaning was made of every note! Most distinguished were the warm English horn of Sarah Lewis, the limpid violin and sweetly expressive viola of Alicia Enstrom and Amy Mason, and the shimmering trumpet of Eli Maurer. The whole orchestra, however, functioned as a living, breathing organism.
Keitaro Harada’s conducting was so engaged with each player in the Shubert Fifth, that a quality of mutual delight in performing together pervaded this sunny, familiar work. Composed when Schubert was only 19, it resonates with respect to Haydn and Mozart, and anticipates in a striking way Mahler’s Schubertian melodic sensibility. Harada listens intently, leads with clarity and subtlety, and emits a thoughtful and appreciative musicality. The first movement was radiant, with clear lines and perfectly balanced contrapuntal voices.
Harada put down the baton for the 6/8 opening of the second movement, a graceful kind of barcarolle. Jessica Anastasio’s sublimely supple and organic account of the graceful melody blended beautifully with the other woodwinds. Harada’s conducting hands were as James Levine’s at his best: inviting, describing, and summoning with precision the emotions that underpinned the phrases. Most especially, in the singing final section, he drew from the orchestra a splendid choral quality, leading up to the brilliant, descending Eb arpeggio by horn soloist Meghan Guegold that brought the movement to a convincing and satisfying conclusion.
High horns in thirds and many tips of the hat to Mozart distinguished the third movement of the Schubert, with Harada’s baton deftly indicating the andante 3/4 time and the many dynamic nuances. There were beautifully controlled piano and pianissimo ensemble sections here, the players instantly and eagerly responding to Harada’s indications.
Still more dramatic distributions of dynamics characterized the fourth movement of Schubert in quick 4/4 time, with sweet melodies tossed around and beautiful section work in the 12/8 portion. The reviewer’s notes include the excited phrase “Sounds like a big string quartet!” Such was the plasticity and nuanced expression of this performance! At its end, the players applauded Harada enthusiastically.
With Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Orchestral Suite, the salvaged music from the unsuccessful Strauss/Hofmannsthal five-act opera that followed Der Rosenkavalier, there was yet another parallelism with Friday’s concert. Just as the Mahler Second sustains the music and drama of the First, so does this programmatic confection carry forward the wit and whimsy of its predecessor. There is much happy parody of the formalities of high and low society, paeans and lampoons of costume and convention, a predestined prig who meets his comeuppance, and some, but nearly as much, delicious polytonality. Here, however, it’s all in miniature, and all in the orchestra, but the charm is there. The conductor, Alexander Prior, at 18 years of age, has already received awards in the Mahler Conducting Competition, the Leeds Conducting Competition, and the International Prokofiev Composition Competition, and conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Eugene Onegin, Dido and Aeneas, and La Traviata in Russia. The light lifting of this work was addressed with brio and humor, and the orchestra and crowd loved him.
In the Overture, a vivace movement features a sub-orchestra, first just a piano quintet, then with the addition of a contrabass, and gradually the whole shebang, bursting through delightful modulations and rapid changes of mood. The clear, bright trumpet and strong, flexible bass trombone of Toby Penk and Nozomi Kasano Flatt, respectively, sang sweetly and strongly, and the virtuoso runs and arpeggios of pianist Makiko Hirata swept the ensemble along.
A solo in 6/8 meter by the oboe, Kristina Goettler, gave a dulcet, vocalistic quality to the opening melody of the second section of the overture, and the clarinet of Georgiy Borisov, sustained its development, along with an impressively nuanced descant by the confident horn player, Matthew Bronstein.
The Minuet section that followed featured two flutes and harmonic resonances direct from the second act of Der Rosenkavalier, with repeated dominant-tonic cadences in different keys. The “Fencing Master” movement was charming, with pleasing and pompous pokings and pretensions from the trumpet, piano, and horn.
The following movements, “Entrance and Dance of the Tailors,” “Minuet of Lully,” and “Courante,” comprised a cleverly-embedded violin concerto, with zesty double-stops, fabulous filigrees, and shades of Sarasate for concert mistress Sarah Silver. Her sound is splendid but not large, and one had to listen carefully over the voluptuous orchestration to appreciate the full ambit of her music: technically brilliant with deep feeling, unerring intonation, keen dynamic sensibility, and a fine sense of humor.
Alexander Prior brought forth in the gracious Entrance of Cleante an unusual hymn-like string ensemble, with an eerie resonance to Baroque chamber instrumentation. A pianissimo passage, voiced by violins, cello, and contrabass was contrived by the use of portamento to echo like violas de Gamba, giving way to a bouncing theme with changing meters featuring horn and trumpet. This was a small-orchestra tour de force in the space of five minutes.
“The Dinner (Table Music and Dance of the Kitchen Boy)” brought the show to a fulfilling close. Prior’s conducting accurately and expressively characterized the stiff formalities, martial posturing, and churlish children, cooking up a mouth-watering array of savories: the splendid cello of Caleb van der Swaagh, soaring high on the fingerboard with nary an absent spice, delectable and fragrant flute/oboe duet playing by Anastasio and Goettler, and harmonies that tasted of the miraculous acid overlays in the Presentation of the Rose.
If these three concerts can be seen as a measure of the present and future of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its progeny, one may safely say that classical music at Tanglewood is in good hands, even in the absence of its musical director. In his recovery, we hope James Levine returns soon and thank him for both for his enduring legacy and this thoughtful programming.
June 30, 2010
Rhythms reminiscent of Rite of Spring drove the most riveting performances in the June 25 and 28 offerings by the State Ballet of Georgia and the Mark Morris Dance Group that kicked off the dance and music seasons of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance in the Ted Shawn Theater and Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, respectively. Both companies are justifiably renowned for bringing music front and center in their dances, and in moments tender and fierce, they showed keen awareness of the composers’ intentions, especially when sharing the stage with brilliant young piano and string players. In each program, ceremony and synchronous movement held in check powerful impulses of sexuality, violence, and self-abnegation. Passionate live performances of Stravinsky, Bizet, Chopin, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison, propelled leaps and lifts, slaps and stomps, prancing parades and paralytic pauses, along with astounding mad dashes by men and women flying over every square foot of stage. Those in attendance will not soon forget the virtuosity, expressivity, and stamina of these brilliant musicians and dancers.
State Ballet of Georgia at Jacob’s Pillow
Nina Ananiashvili, founder and artistic director of the Georgians and renowned principal of the Bolshoi, Kirov, and New York City ballet companies, offered a generous, three-part survey of a sweep of classical and modern dance that depicted the arc of her career. A set of delicious classical amuse-bouches, to recorded music by Delibes (Sylvia), Offenbach (La Chatte Metamorphosée en Femme), Massenet (Thaïs), and Johann Straus II (Fruhlingstimmen), all choreographed by Frederic Ashton, preceded a pair of live performances by Jeanette Fang, piano, and David Southern, violin, of Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant, choreographed by George Balanchine, and, with Fang performing alone, off-stage, Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques, retitled “Bizet Variations Pas de Six” in choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The program closed with “Falling Angels” by choreographer Ji?í Kylián, set to recorded excerpts of Steve Reich’s Drumming.
Surely the most stunning moment of the first set was at the beginning of the Massanet, when, to that familiar, deeply-affecting descending melody, the powerful David Ananeli entered as a one-man sedan-chair, carrying Ananiashvili herself high on his right shoulder for what felt like 10 minutes as she slowly and exquisitely began her tribute to Anna Pavlova, with over-the-head arm movements, wrist-to-wrist, finger-to finger, undulating side-to-side, ultimately dismounting with a lovely, continuous, balanced sweep. Although Ananeli was alter-cast as a subordinate in this star turn, he was a worthy, musically-attuned counterweight to Ananiashvili’s controlled and whimsical presence, giving arm, hand, and lift in magnificently restrained reciprocations of longing and love. Would that that old, unidentified, undeniably pretty cello recording, effective as it surely was, had been played instead by the stunning duo presented after the intermission!
Efforts to integrate live music into dance performance in the Ted Shawn Theatre are inevitably frustrated, if not compromised, by the hum of the ceiling fans and the buzz of the air conditioning machinery overhead. In the old days, with the barn-door open at stage rear of a hot Sunday afternoon, the primitive blowers produced a kind of informal languor, apposite to the rough-and-ready history of the Pillow. Not, however, on this night.
In her otherwise-informative introduction of the Georgia State Ballet’s performance, Ella Baff, the executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, exclaimed, “Live dance, live music, what could be better!” Hear, hear. But when the lights dimmed almost to near-total darkness between program sections, the din grew inescapably from background to bloody distraction. And when a violin and piano had to fight to be heard at the outset of the Stravinsky, and when the sound technician miked up an off-stage, out-of-tune piano level to full flagrante at the beginning of the Bizet, one could not but wonder about the real place of music in the enterprise. Sadly, on this night, it could not have been but subordinate, whether or not by intention.
Notwithstanding these limitations, the pianist Annette Fang, playing a roll-out baby grand, and the violinist David Southern, miked directly, brought forth an inspired reading of the Stravinsky “Duo Concertant.” This work bristles with spiky rhythms and triad-on-triad harmonies redolent of the “Rite of Spring” and “Soldier’s Tale,” that underlay vivid, arching, chromatic lines, counterposed against the glowing cantabiles and romantic village tunes that one hears in the composer’s songs and in such ballet music as “Les Noces.” Indeed, there reigned here the vivid collaborative sprit of Diaghalev, if not of Ruth St. Denis, whose portrait, opposite her former partner Shawn’s, adorns one wing of the stage. The costumes were simple and the stage-set plain, but the melding of melody and movement, dissonance and drama, manifested a total commitment to making transcendent art by two duos of players and dancers.
At the beginning, Balanchine places the man and woman behind the piano, between the keyboard at the left and the violin at the right. Sebastian Kloborg and Nino Gogua listened attentively to the music until one, provoked by a musical stimulus or emotional impulse, pulled the other flirtatiously or forcefully to the center, where together they spun, fell, pranced, held, and delicately and indelicately intertwined. There was magic here in both music and dance, and especially in this seamless fusion of the arts. This piece was sublimely elevating and moving, the best of the evening.
The Bizet followed quickly after a short pause during which the grand piano was pushed off the stage, preparing the way for a lively, three-couple sortie that required the entire stage and its flies for soaring comings and goings. The choreographer, Alexis Ratmansky, who composed the dance in 2008 while serving with Anianashvili at the American Ballet Theater, contributed this comment to the program notes, focusing on the absence of narrative structure: “As George Balanchine used to say, when woman and man dance, it is already a story.”
This story, however, included a genuine devil, an over-amplified and out-of-tune instrument that sounded more like a neglected fortepiano or barrelhouse upright than the previously enjoyed baby grand. When suddenly, mid-way through the piece, the volume was ramped down, the inadequacy of the instrument was emphasized, not diminished, giving further dismay to a listener trying to stay engaged with the Bizet.
Notwithstanding, the piece worked well because of Annette Fang’s unremitting musicianship and indomitable character, and the evening’s most charming moment came at the end, when two of the dancers en pointe pulled her into their bows, held both her hands as they toed backwards to stage rear, and quickly returned to the front with their admired captive, a game and comely presence, wearing high heels.
The evening ended with a stunning, eight-woman evocation of feminine self-consciousness and striving for corporeal perfection and human connection. These “Falling Angels” wore sexy black leotards and reached out to one another across aching acres of separation, but also in tight company, the yearning emphasized by pin-point spots that pierced the darkened stage to reveal fingers straining to touch and hands grasping desperately to hold, the circle of light expanding to reveal entire bodies tortured by failed communication, falling, weeping, the whole troupe synchronizing a miserably controlling gesture: wrists over the heads and under their jaws, forcing their mouths shut. Those clamping limbs weren’t their own, their pained expressions suggested, but the many cultural and personal forces that silence women’s voices.
The piece included stylized emulations of frenzied workout routines, Michael Jackson moves, and slinky, sensuous steps performed by the entire ensemble in synchrony. Carried dancers fluttered their hands and struggled to break free, yet the rhythms of the bongos and midrange tom-toms appeared to lift the women’s spirits. In the end, the joy of the dance enabled the angels to rise above earthly adversity.
Here, ironically, the music, however canned and amplified in low-fi, served well as background. Compared to the African percussion ensembles that so obviously inspired it, these excerpts of Reich’s “Drumming” included neither the syncopations nor rhythmic anticipations that give the real thing its tension and swing. The downbeats were relentless and plodding, and the superimposed layers of rhythm added a bit of energy, if not real excitement and spice, focusing the eye and ear on the dancers.
Mark Morris at Tanglewood
Mark Morris’s annual Tanglewood visit, as always, featured his own brand of choreography that takes inspiration and draws energy from music performed in real time. Four large works were offered, “Mosaic and United,” to music by Henry Cowell (excerpts from his third and fourth String Quartets ); “Sang-Froid,” to piano music by Chopin (excerpts from Etude in A minor, Op. 10/2; Mazurka in A minor, Op.68/2; Etude in G flat, Op. 25/9; Mazurka in D, Op. 33/2; Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 57; Waltz in D-flat, Op.64/1, “The Minute Waltz”; Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55/1; Prelude in A. Op. 28/7; and Etude in A minor, Op. 25/11), and the world premiere of a new work “The Muir,” (to folk songs arranged by Beethoven, “Ye shepherds of this pleasant vale,” “The sweetest lad was Jamie,” “Cease your funning,” “Sally in our alley,” “Could this ill world have been contriv’d,” “What shall I do to shew how much I love her?” “Sunset,” “ Come fill, fill my good fellow,” and “The lovely lass of Inverness.” After another pause came “Grand Duo,” to music by Lou Harrison (“Grand Duo: Prelude, Stampede, A Round, and Polka”).
At the outset of “Mosaic and United,” Cowell’s dense, lush music seemed to compensate for nearly every dissonant passage with a prominent, friendly, major chord. This uncertainty of intention was reciprocated by an ensemble of three men and two women who were clad in colorful, flowing pajamas by Isaac Mizrahi. A sense of precariousness and frustration pervaded the opening portion of the piece. Both men and women lifted their partners, whose arms and legs vibrated and fluttered, as the music became wispy and the jackets were shed. The beautifully played, arching, extended cello line propelled upward the faces and gestures of three dancers and framed the entire subsequent movement. Kathryn Bates Williams (A New Fromm Player) gave a splendid accounting of this challenging and exposed mini-concerto.
The cello, with lively rhythm, jump-started a lively, folksy sequence in 5/4 time. Some lovely quartet ensemble work counter-posed warm, rich sonorities against a parade of dancers lost in their individual thoughts. A man and woman broke away in a passionate duet. The woman retreated, dancing sensuously to a fabulous cello line that conjured circles and arabesques. When another man entered and stood alone, she ran distractedly and fell. As the cello line descended, she seemed almost to die, but when the cello ascended once more, she regained her excited animation, circling the two men. The cello’s voice appeared to evoke her passions, thoughts, and conflicts, and the dissonances were saucy and hot.
Suddenly the harmonic mood shifted to major, and a happy and lively ensemble was pulled to stop by a sustained triad. Then a keening, urgent, high cello melody began, with violins and viola stamping out fierce rhythms reminiscent of Bartok. A couple leapt into action with distinctive folk turns, jumps, and swings. Bursts of movement, stamping heels and races around and across the stage led to the first real summer wildness on the Ozawa Hall stage, the music feeding the dance, and vice versa. Once more Williams’s brilliant high-register cello led the action before everyone ran off.
A spiccato section followed, the bows of the second violin, viola, and cello bouncing the 3/4 meter as the first violin sang a lyrical melody. The female dancers returned in a sensuous, slow formation as the men circled around them. Soon re-garbed in their bright tops, two men suddenly carried off one woman, then another, then another. When grabbed, they folded. Did their fancy threads enable this aggression? Were the women seduced by such male display? Could they possibly have desired this abduction?
Then as Williams struck a set of lively 7/4 and 5/4 rhythmic riffs, another string player drummed on the back of her instrument, a slow and thoughtful final passage began, marked by beautifully expressive, sustained chords without obvious metric indications. Strong, assertive, rhythm returned, with strong and sonorous cello leading the way. A march with high kicks brought the company from the back to the front of the stage with a kind of fearsome inevitability, and the piece ended to clamorous applause.
Chopin was next, and what Chopin it was! Ryan McCullough, a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow, gave a bravura accounting of this unusual suite of familiar gems, sustaining with humor the 3/4 rhythms of the Mazurkas (as if the dancers really needed the extra emphasis) and spinning out the impossible thirds and embellishments of the Etudes as if they were cotton candy. The Berceuse was lovingly played. The dancers mimed his music, nodded off, lost balance, awakening suddenly. The ravishingly beautiful Chopin projected a sense of comfort that balanced the darkness, mystery and loss of control in the dance.
The Opus 64, No.1, waltz came across as a send-up of every performer who has tried to rush it into a minute’s display. Dancers careened across the stage, but were blocked by a fence formed by three of their colleagues, making the point, perhaps, that high art isn’t a technical show. Here, Ryan McCullough’s virtuosity was evident and understated, his playing projecting a warmth in the slightly slower, middle section, that conjured the humanity of Artur Rubenstein. The men that formed the blockade danced together here, sweetly and gently.
In the Nocturne, a sense of awkwardness and impending tragedy pervaded a small group of couples who looked balefully across the floor at one another, even as their stilted movements betrayed isolation from their partners. Failing and dying alone were suggested by seemingly unsuccessful efforts to revive fallen dancers. This was a brave and unflinching reflection on the tragedy of loss and our own essential separateness. McCullough evinced both its sadness and compassion at a thoughtfully nuanced slow tempo. Brilliant cascades of sound closed out the piece, and the dancers gave every indication of being moved – literally and figuratively – by the music. This is why we come to Tanglewood.
“The Muir,” though beautifully danced and sung, was an exercise in frustration. From Row N left, just 50 feet from the box where the quartet of singers and piano trio were placed, it was impossible to discern a single clear syllable of the English lyrics. This was not the fault of the soloists, all of whom sung articulately and with feeling, but rather with the problematic acoustics associated with positioning the singers in a low-ceilinged corner forward of extreme stage left. Although two and a half pages of single-spaced text were provided in the program, it was impossible to read them in the darkened hall. And who, anyway, would want to read them on one’s lap while trying to watch a dance performance?
The charming, vernacular lyrics were essential to both dance and song. Would it not have been appropriate to provide the singers with adequate amplification or positions on the stage, or to utilize the supertitle system announced in this very printed program to interpret the forthcoming “Beowulf” in Ozawa Hall? As it stood, this performance left an impression of vigorous and pleasant dancing, colorful ball-gowns, intensely presented Beethoven, and an inattention to detail that risked spoiling a Mark Morris world premiere.
The “Grand Duo” that closed out the evening came across as a kind of confectionary “Rite of Spring.” Michelle Yard was the star of the show, provoking worry for her safety as unbearable tension rose in the Prelude movement. She turned from one couple to another, reaching desperately for engagement and protection, as the piano punched out inexorable rhythms, with right-fisted clusters of notes evoking a sacrificial ritual. She retreated to stage rear, facing away, her red dress almost shouting “Stop this!” Then silence. And darkness. A thrilling, menacing pause. What was coming next?
But fortunately, even as devices of threat and victimization returned, and the music ebbed and flowed, Ms. Yard survived, and, indeed, triumphed in a lovely panoply of turns, bows, jumps, pairings, and affecting reconnections. Of all the dancers in the company, she projected the most human vulnerability and resiliency in the face of the cruel fusion of rite and cruelty.
Were Harrison’s music to have had more tissue and harmonic richness, the piece would have been more devastating. Although its rhythms and interplay between piano and violin were lively and infused with respect for the compositional tradition associated with the Ballets Russes, it paled in comparison to the exalting Stravinsky “Duo Concertant” that so energized the evening at Jacob’s Pillow. This is not to say, however, that it was not well played. Both Katherine Bormann, the violinist, and Nolan Pearson, the pianist, gave it their all, and provided exemplary collaboration to all the action on the stage.
Mark Morris’s vision is not a pessimistic one. He appears to eschew the formalism and abstracted standards of beauty that pervade the classic ballet tradition, and to favor down-to-earth athleticism and emotional expression. In triumphs like “Mosaic and United” and “Sang-Froid,” he melds music and movement with substance and style, posing big questions and giving assurance that high art can allay the discomforts of the examined life.