TANGLEWOOD – August, 2010

By Lawrence Budmen

A busy weekend of music at Tanglewood in the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts, USA commenced on August 5, 2010 with a poetic recital by mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink in the wood paneled interior of Seiji Ozawa Hall. Fink’s clear, pure voice is perfectly controlled. Her stage demeanor exudes class with a capital C. With the great Frederica von Stade about to retire from active performance, Fink may well be her successor as a recitalist of the highest, most refined stature.

Two Schumann songs on texts of Friedrich Ruckert immediately established Fink’s warmth of timbre and directness of communication. Four Ruckert settings by Clara Schumann were impressive demonstrations of her neglected qualities as a composer: mastery of expression and passionate romanticism. Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und leben concluded the program’s first half on an emotional high. Did two people ever love each other as deeply as the Schumanns? Fink’s musically scrupulous rendition traversed the songs’ emotional rollercoaster with impassioned immediacy. Possessing a superb vocal instruments, Fink never calls attention to herself, putting the composer’s inner musical thoughts front and center.

The program's second half, songs by Latin and Mediterranean composers, found the Argentine born Fink on native musical turf. She brought earthy, gutsy passion to La Maja Dolorosa, three tonadillas by Enrique Granados, set to a refined, sophisticated piano accompaniment (ably performed by Anthony Spiri, Fink's exceptionally gifted collaborator). Six charming vignettes by Argentina's Luis Gianneo (1897-1968) were presented with great verve and flair by Fink. The music of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) is all too rarely heard. This prolific Italian master fashioned his own brand of lyrical atonality. That fascinating personal voice was vividly displayed in his Quatro liriche di Antonio Machado, music of angular leaps and soaring arioso that fitted Fink's velvety mezzo like a glove. Although Joaquin Rodrigo is best known for his guitar masterpieces, he wrote many songs. Fink offered a set of four lyrically plaintive and joyously festive pieces to conclude the concert. A small but knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience brought her back to the stage repeatedly and she offered a ballad of romantic heartbreak by Carlos Gustavino as an encore, sung with the natural lyrical grace of a great pop balladeer.

Christoph von Dohnanyi, a senior master of the podium, led two of the Boston Symphony's weekend concerts (August 6 and 9). He offered Mendelssohn's seldom played Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Op. 27 as a fine opener on the Friday evening program, a vigorous, incisive wedding of strings and winds that resounded with festive brilliance. Mozart's Piano Concerto No.14 in E-flat Major, K.449 is another score that deserves more frequent performance. With Dohnanyi and a reduced BSO contingent providing sterling support, Richard Goode's playing was a model of clarity, scrupulous classicism and patrician artistry. Goode channeled the brio as well as gravitas of the initial Allegro vivace. The Andantino soared with pensive rumination, Goode never forgetting the operatic genesis of Mozart's pianistic arias. In the final Allegro ma non troppo, Goode's wonderfully precise playing brought transparency to Mozart's contrapuntal invention. A better performance of this delightful score could scarcely be imagined.

At both BSO concerts, Dohnanyi conducted major symphonies from the standard repertoire. Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathetique) is not a work one would associate with this conductor; yet the performance was sensational, removing tons of accumulated musical dust to deliver a reading of passion and power, devoid of exaggeration or over sentimentality. From the high wire intensity of the opening movement to the vivacious flow of the waltz and the rousing propulsion of the march, this Pathetique was true to the music's emotional core without indulging in over heated bathos. The heart of the performance was the concluding Adagio lamentoso, richly impassioned and moving. For once the audience remained silent until the final chord faded away before bursting into a greatly deserved cheering ovation. The Boston players were in top form, clarinet and bassoon solos in the first movement well nigh perfect.

At the Sunday afternoon performance(August 8), beautiful, sunny weather brought a large crowd to the Koussevitzky Music Shed and Dohnanyi offered one of his specialties - Dvorak's Symphony No.8 in G Major, Op.88. With the Bostonians again playing at white heat, the venerable conductor offered a rapturous, enveloping combination of ruminative lyricism and Czech vigor. The warmth and tonal sheen, spacious sense of serenity and surging momentum made for a beguiling musical experience. Again the thrice familiar became freshly minted under Dohnanyi's masterful direction.

The performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.81 fared less well. Arabella Steinbacher proved a bland soloist, confusing lyrical flow with monotony, her slender tone lacking allure. Steinbacher's traversal of the Kreisler cadenzas (in the outer movements) was coarse and tonally harsh. Too often coordination between soloist and conductor went awry, the orchestral performance less than precise.

The preceding evening (August 7), by contrast, the weather was chilly but Hilary Hahn provided plenty of musical heat with an incendiary reading of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47. I heard this American violinist play the same score (in South Florida) when she was all of thirteen years old. At that time, she already displayed formidable technique and played like few young teenagers ever could. Now in her late twenties, Hahn is a mature artist with the deep interpretive insight to surmount the snow capped peaks and frigid valleys of Sibelius' uniquely personal, elegiac toned concerto. With the ability to turn on a dime in the mood shifting melancholy and craggy bravura of Sibelius' musical discourse, Hahn offered a performance of unsurpassed beauty and agile technique. Whether in the dark theatricality of the opening movement (evoked with rich tonal resonance), the soaring hushed incandescence of the Adagio (played with a mere thread of tone) or the splashy fireworks of the finale (taken at a faster clip than any previous performance in memory), Hahn set a standard second to none. Boston Symphony assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung provided vividly colorful, tautly paced support. In response to prolonged cheers, Hahn offered an encore (rare at a BSO Tanglewood concert) - a serenely beautiful, silken toned Sarabande from Bach's solo Partita in D Major.

The Korean born Sung (a prizewinner in the Mahler and Solti conducting competitions), now concluding a three year residency with the BSO, impressed with strong orchestral leadership and control, the beat always clear and precise. She captured the Wagnerian grandeur of the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin without being overly literal. Sung was unafraid to linger over orchestral felicities, turning in an unusually sonorous performance. The gifted conductor evoked the bluesy loneliness of Aaron Copland's Quiet City with beautifully nuanced solos by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs and English horn Robert Sheena. In the tour de force of Stravinsky's 1919 version of the Suite from The Firebird, Sung alternately channeled visceral orchestral firepower and the most caressing and sensuous of sonorities in a performance of balletic magic and beauty. The orchestra was in splendid form with brilliant, gleaming playing from all sections. BSO musicians joined in applauding Sung, clearly a conductor with a major career ahead.

The evening of August 8 brought Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project to the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Founded a decade ago at Tanglewood, this visionary enterprise seeks to musically recreate the ancient trade route that linked Europe, the Middle East and Asia while building bridges between East and West. This well traveled ensemble has played in such venues as Iran, Egypt, Morocco, the former Soviet republics as well as throughout Europe and North America. Commissioning composers from both sides of the Silk Road, Ma has encouraged his musicians (both Western classically trained and players of indigenous Eastern folk instruments) to improvise jam sessions, often providing inspiration for creators of new scores.

From those improvisatory sessions came the program's opening work Caronte by Spanish born Cristina Pato. The score is a virtuosic debate between the Galician bagpipes (Pato) and Chinese sheng or mouth organ (Wu Tong) with ostinato figures in the strings. A stirring curtain raiser, Pato and Tong displayed impressive agility and instrumental mastery. Pato's Galician bagpipes are shaped differently than the familiar Scottish instruments and have a deeper sonority. It was Pato's playing that inspired Osvaldo Golijov to write Air to Air, a 2006 Carnegie Hall-Silk Road commission. A multicultural genius, Golijov here quotes Arab Muslim melodies, a Chinese Easter song, a Mexican prayer (blended with tape of indigenous voices) and a Sardinian protest song. That finale celebrates the bravery of oppressed peoples throughout history. This prolific composer rarely fails to create a winner and Air to Air is no exception. The two soft middle movement feature poetic writing for strings while the opening and closing section spotlight percussion particularly the tabla (as well as bagpipes and sheng). Golijov's huge canvass was given a galvanic performance by the fifteen member ensemble.

The Taranta Project, a 2008 Silk Road commission by the Italian Giovanni Solima, was more in the European classical tradition. Scored for strings and percussion (including percussive body rhythms and vocalization), Solima has created a charming showpiece that mediates between minimalism and neo-Baroque influences, alternately dance-like and meditative. Violinists Colin Jacobsen and Jonathan Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, cellist Mike Block and bassist Jeffrey Beecher demonstrated rhythmic dexterity and trance like concentration in the score's musical echoes of mysticism. Solima has long exhibited a highly individualistic creative voice and it was a pleasure to encounter his work. His scores deserve more frequent performance.

Indian tabla master Sandeep Das wrote Shristi as a challenge to his fellow percussionists. A rhythmic showpiece of the first water, Das' stunning performance was matched by percussionists Haruka Fuji, Joseph Gramley and Mark Suter. This score, with its off kilter patterns and sudden stasis, is simply great fun. Pipa virtuosso Yang Wei had a field day in the ensemble's arrangement of Ambush from Ten Sides, a depiction of an ancient Chinese battle that embraces tangy Asian sonorities and the Hollywood scores of John Williams in an appealing mix. The encore was a real surprise. Minus his instrument, Wu Tong sang a sensuous Chinese love song (with the affinity of a pop crooner), accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma playing a movement from one of the Bach cello suites. A meeting of two worlds indeed! A large and enthusiastic audience awarded repeated ovations to the group and its goal of shared cultural heritages and understanding.

An hour north of the Tanglewood-Lenox-Stockbridge area, the city of Williamstown is a feast of colonial architecture. The home of the elegant campus of Williams College (which predates American independence), Williamstown houses the Clark Art Institute, one of the most distinguished small museums in the United States. The Clark's rich collection of English and Dutch masters and French impressionists is outstanding. Currently the museum is presenting a fascinating exhibition - Picasso on Degas which traces unexpected influences between the two artists. This summer presentation is drawing thousands to this great oasis of art in northwestern Massachusetts (near the Vermont border).

The Clark also presents an outstanding summer chamber music series in its intimate, three hundred seat auditorium. With warm and clear acoustics and great sightlines, there are few better places to hear top chamber ensembles. On August 10 the Miro String Quartet offered a program of works by Beethoven, Barber and Dvorak. This youthful group was founded in 1996 at Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory. The players (violinists David Ching and Sandy Yamamoto, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele) play with forthright, emphatic musicality. The Miro's warmth and beauty of tonal collaboration and exhilarating music making produced a chamber concert of the most superb variety.

A strong willed performance of Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Op.18, No.4 set the pace with attention grabbing accents in a whirlwind opening Allegro ma non troppo. The musicians' vivacity of spirit in the Allegro scherzoso was delightfully effervescent. A surprisingly brisk and brusque Menuetto preceded the full tilt Prestissimo, enlivened by the quartet's high energy, truly presto spirit. Beethoven rarely sounded so delectably vivacious.

While Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings has become an American classic, many listeners are not familiar with the piece's original version as part of the two movement Quartet in B minor, Op.11. The quartet is a remarkably gripping, powerful score of somber cast, evidence of the prodigious creative powers of the youthful Barber. Without doubt, the Adagio (actually the first part of the second movement) is the score's high point and emerges even more poignant and moving in the original quartet version. The Miro players' idiomatic performance did full justice to Barber's lyricism and structural mastery. For sheer precision and emotional depth, this performance could scarcely be bettered.

The Miro's concluding traversal of Dvorak's Quartet in F minor, Op.96 (American) was the total antithesis of the dutiful, academic performances this score usually receives. With a vigorous attack, the players launched the first movement into high gear. The highlight of this fine reading was the soulful Lento, a rich oasis of songful instrumental conversation. After the lively elegance of the Molto vivace, the Miro brought high octane velocity to the finale. This splendid evening of chamber music by one of the finest young quartets on the contemporary concert stage brought three glorious weeks in the Berkshires to a festive and satisfying conclusion.

The Ebene String Quartet plays works by Mozart and Beethoven at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, USA on August 19. On August 20 Ludovic Morlot conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mozart's Symphony No.31 (Paris), Ravel's complete Mother Goose and Dawn Upshaw sings songs by Osvaldo Golijov and Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne. August 21 brings Susanna Malkki conducting Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Overture and Beethoven's 4th Symphony. Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk solo in Mendelssohn's Double Concerto in D minor. Giancarlo Guerrero conducts Jennifer Higdon's Blue Cathedral and works by Suppe and Bizet on August 22. Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony play Bach's Concerto in D minor for two violins and works by Sarasate.

On August 24 and 26 Garrick Ohlsson plays all Chopin recitals. David Zinman leads the BSO in Poulenc's Gloria (with soprano Isobel Bayrakdarian and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) and Holst's The Planets on August 27. Zinman conducts Dvorak's New World Symphony and Brahms' Piano Concerto No.2 (with Emanuel Ax) on August 29. The traditional concluding Tanglewood performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony on August 29 is conducted by Kurt Masur (the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver and soprano Nicole Cabell, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Marcus Haddock and bass Eric Owens). See www.bso.org for information.

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