(7-30. 31, 8-1-10)
DAVID HOOSE (7-31-10)

By Lawrence Budmen

The Boston Symphony Orchestra provided plenty of high voltage excitement at Tanglewood in northwestern Massachusetts, USA as July turned to August but the festival’s graduate orchestral and operatic programs were not to be denied while the high school level Boston University Tanglewood Institute instrumental ensemble also made an impressive showing.

The Bostonians welcomed a veteran maestro and a rising podium artist for the weekend’s concerts. Charles Dutoit, nearing the completion of his interim directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra, took directional honors on July 30 and August 1, 2010. Well known for his long tenure at the helm of the Montreal Symphony and on going directorship of the Royal Philharmonic, Dutoit remains a master of orchestral color. Like the late Eugene Ormandy, he always manages to obtain the best from his players, to make an orchestra really sound terrific. The Boston ensemble’s lush, vibrant sonorities were a natural for this conductor and a series of orchestral showpieces received high tech performances.

On Friday evening (July 30) Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila commenced the proceedings briskly, Dutoit wasting no time in producing a voluptuous, big band sonority from all sections. Extended excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet score combined a strong sense of orchestral opulence, rhythmic accuracy and drama. Producing sensuous string tone, the Bostonians made the love music shimmer in ethereal waves of sound. The Death of Tybalt was taken at full tilt, Dutoit commanding blistering brass sonority. The conductor evoked chilling intensity in the concluding depiction of Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet. The sheer beauty of orchestral sound in this masterpiece of twentieth century romanticism remained with this listener long after the concert concluded.

Russian born pianist Kirill Gerstein, winner of the 2010 Gilmore Award, was the evening’s featured soloist in Tchaikovsky’s perennial Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op.23. The Gilmore Foundation has gained a reputation for aiding the careers of distinctive young keyboard artists. Such previous winners as David Owen Norris, Leif Ove Andsnes, Piotr Anderszewski and Ingrid Fliter have demonstrated a combination of rock solid instrumental technique and highly individualistic interpretive streak. Gerstein appears no less gifted. A pianistic firebrand, he tempers his powerhouse tendencies with sensitive musicality. In the familiar Tchaikovsky concerto, the big moments blazed. The lengthy first movement cadenza was rendered with the fire of a Horowitz or Richter. Gerstein provided contrasting glints of color, scaling his power pounding virtuosity down to a mere thread of sound in the Andantino simplice. The finale was all incendiary passion without ever resorting to bombast. Gerstein is clearly a major talent one wants to hear again. Dutoit and the orchestra provided big boned, expressive support to match the soloist’s drive and passion. (More than one musician has told this writer that Dutoit is one of the best concerto accompanists around today.) The Boston Symphony musicians joined in applauding Gerstein while the audience awarded him three curtain calls, an extreme rarity at Tanglewood.

On Sunday afternoon (August 1) Yo-Yo Ma was the featured attraction in Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85. Warm, sunny weather and the soloist’s popularity produced a throng that spilled out beyond the 5,000 seat Koussevitzky Music Shed onto Tanglewood’s lawns, spreading beyond the walkways back to the gates. This was far more than a mere celebrity event. The cellist’s deeply impassioned performance matched the searing emotional power of Elgar’s masterpiece. All the dark poignancy of the opening movement was powerfully conveyed, the cellist’s rich tone and emotional intensity almost hypnotic. Dutoit and the Boston strings were no less intense. Yo-Yo Ma’s soulful reading of the Adagio was vividly etched, the emotive sadness spun with mesmeric beauty. The cellist attacked the Allegro finale with headlong drive and energy. Elgar’s sublime instrumental swan song received a reading of rare beauty and artistry. Many great cellists have been associated with this powerful score. Yo-Yo Ma may well be its contemporary exemplar. With conductor and orchestra equally fired up, this was a performance to cherish, the work of a musical superstar, master musician and artistic paragon.

Dutoit and the Boston players hardly took a back seat to the afternoon’s star soloist. Sibelius’ Karelia Suite is a score that this ensemble has surprisingly ventured only once before – in 1979 under Sir Colin Davis. From the initial chords, Dutoit cast a spell of darkness, the brooding brass emerging from the depths of the orchestral landscape. Even as those fanfares sounded, the conductor underlined the sorrowful undertones. The brooding Ballade soared on a glistening wave of luminous strings, Dutoit’s pacing masterful. A high-octane edition of the Alla Marcia concluded the performance in joyous fashion. The Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition may be standard orchestral fare but Dutoit taut, exciting conducting often dazzled. In top form, the orchestra played with flawless brilliance, trumpet and saxophone solos taking pride of place.

The previous evening (July 31) the temperature dipped into the forties in the Berkshires but the music making was warm and compelling. Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, newly appointed principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, made a highly impressive BSO debut in a program of works by Berg, Strauss and Mahler originally planned by recuperating BSO music director James Levine.

Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra is music cut from the same cloth as Mahler’s 9th Symphony, deeply pessimistic yet surprisingly beautiful. (The score also is more than casually related to Berg’s operatic masterpiece Wozzeck.) Mena beautifully delineated the often-quiet instrumental textures with clarity and transparency while giving full measure to the music’s grim darkness. The final Marsch was built to an incendiary climax, Mena superbly commanding the build up to the final cataclysmic hammer blows.

Hei-Kyung Hong was the glorious soprano soloist in Strauss’ autumnal Four Last Song. This wonderful Korean born soprano has been a stalwart of New York’s Metropolitan Opera for twenty-three seasons, singing a hugely diverse repertoire that encompasses Handel and Mozart, Gounod, Puccini and Verdi, Wagner and John Corigliano. Her sublime solo in Brahms’ German Requiem (under Levine) at Tanglewood last summer was memorable. Hong’s beautiful, crystal clear voice soared with pathos in Strauss’ ultimate artistic farewell, powerfully suggesting life and time lost. Mena, an experienced opera conductor and principal guest at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, offered an insightful, passionately expressive accompaniment. Hong received a cheering, standing ovation from an appreciative audience on a chilly evening.

Mena demonstrated that he really knows his Mahler with a vital performance of the Symphony No.4 in G Major. From the outset, the conductor emphasized the score’s Viennese heritage. The strings employed slides between notes in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century manner that such conductors as Mengelberg and Mahler himself emphasized as a vital part of their music making. Mena’s idiomatic approach yielded an opening movement both elegant and joyous, the minute instrumental details captured in transparent fashion. The second movement was appropriately quirky. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe had a field day with the eccentric death’s fiddle episode, his violin tuned a tone higher.

Mena adopted a measured tempo for the serene slow movement, projecting the music in ruminative, deeply emotive and expressive fashion. The silken tones of the Boston strings and Mena’s endearing lyric flow produced an Adagio of stately beauty and lyricism. Hong spun silvery vocal images in the Wunderhorn song of the finale, the final soft chords fading away magically. Mena is clearly a major talent. With superb vocal contributions by Hong, he produced a memorable evening of music.

Speaking of up and coming podium talents, seventeen year old British conductor Alexander Prior was the true star of a fine program by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra on July 25 at Seiji Ozawa Hall. Trained at Russia’s St. Petersburg Conservatory, Prior has already been an assistant conductor of the Seattle Symphony. He led the Tanglewood Music Center fellows in an impassioned, bracing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. Prior conveyed Tchaikovsky’s shifting moods without exaggeration, producing music making of white-hot intensity and lyrical catharsis. He drew superb playing from the graduate musicians. Prior is a future star in the making. Two other Tanglewood conducting fellows shared the podium. Despite a few missed entrances, Keitaro Harada led a flowing performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) that captured the tempest tossed fury and romantic essence of the score. After an overly excitable overture, Cristian Marcelaru settled down for a warmly romantic reading of the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Herbert Blomstedt had coached the three conducting fellows. That venerable maestro drew brilliant playing from the youthful musicians in one of his specialties – Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber. Yet, for all the orchestral solidity, Blomstedt tended to over sell the music’s bombast at the expense of subtlety. A lack of strong dynamic contrasts in the acoustically live hall was palpable. The highly promising Prior definitely took the evening’s honors.

The excellent principal oboe players (Kristina Goettler in the Mendelssohn Midsummer music, Kari Kistler in the Tchaikovsky) were both members of the New World Symphony, the Miami based orchestral academy (under the artistic direction of Michael Tilson Thomas). Other New World fellows in the Tanglewood Music Center ensemble included Douglas Rosenthal (first chair trombone in the powerful brass contingent of the Hindemith) and violinists Katherine Bormann and Alexandra Early.

The high school level Boston University Tanglewood Institute has its own campus near Tanglewood and interchanges some faculty with its sister institution. This program offers teenage musicians of exceptional gifts the opportunity to study with some of the world’s great artists, attend Tanglewood performance and present their own concerts. The institute’s Young Artists Orchestra presented an altogether remarkable performance of Shostakovich’s immense Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93 on the afternoon of July 31 at Ozawa Hall. One could hardly believe this was a youth ensemble. Here was a Shostakovich symphony performance that would do credit to any professional orchestra.

Boston University’s David Hoose, a conductor of taste and discernment, commanded the podium. From the soft opening bars of the initial Moderato movement, Hoose cut to the emotional core of this searing work, written immediately after Stalin’s death. In this score, Shostakovich encompassed the terror and agony of an entire era and Hoose fiercely projected the agitation of the second movement Allegro, hardly a scherzo in any sense. The conductor’s subtly conceived reading of the quiet Allegretto prepared the way for a ringing, triumphant finale. All the wild contrasts of mood, tempo and emotion were superbly handled. The splendid playing of the winds, strings and brass belied the players’ youth. Special kudos to Seowon Kim for the wonderful violin solos, soft and dulcet or fiery – a mirror of the score’s shifting patina.

Hoose preceded the symphony with Elgar’s orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor. While the colorful instrumentation of the opening Fantasia is reverential and highly Baroque, the grandiose version of the Fugue is pure Elgar – an orchestral showpiece par excellence. Hoose and his players made a joyous noise indeed of this pastiche.

Substituting for the recuperating Levine, Christoph von Dohnanyi conducted the Tanglewood Music Center production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in an inventive staging by Ira Siff. At the August 2 performance in the intimate Tanglewood Theater (built in 1946 for the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes), the renowned conductor drew a brilliant realization of the score from the thirty-eight piece, mostly student orchestra, underlining the music’s Mozartean texture rather than overblown romanticism. Standouts in a strong cast included Emalie Savoy (a radiantly lyrical Ariadne), Tau Pupu’a (singing with reserves of power – an authentic heldentenor Bacchus), Audrey Elizabeth Luna (a soubrette Zerbinetta of spunk and vocal craft) and warm voiced baritone Elliot Madore (doing double duty as the Music Master and Harlequin). One cannot over emphasize how wonderful it was to encounter Strauss’ masterpiece in an appropriately scaled house.

On August 7 Shi-Yeon Sung conducts the Boston Symphony in Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, Copland’s Quiet City, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (with Hilary Hahn) at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, USA. At the August 8 matinee, Christoph von Dohnanyi leads Dvorak’s Symphony No.8 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with Arabella Steinbacher). August 8 evenings brings Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road ensemble. Pierre Laurent Aimard and members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe play Bach and Elliot Carter on August 10. See www.bso.org for information.


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