By Lawrence Budmen

Amid the awesome mountain views and lush greenery of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Tanglewood is an oasis of advanced music education and superb performances by the greats of the classical music world. Established by the legendary Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky in the 1930’s, Tanglewood continues to bring world renowned musicians and talented young artists together in a unique atmosphere of peace and tranquility. 

The Berkshires have long been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This renowned ensemble has recently been rejuvenated under its new music director James Levine. The orchestra’s impressive performances were welcome confirmation of the ensemble’s rich artistic tradition (formed under such podium luminaries as Koussevitzky, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, and Erich Leinsdorf).

The Boston Symphony never sounded better than on August 20 (at the Koussevitzky Music Shed) when conductor Marin Alsop made her debut with this stellar orchestra. Ms. Alsop is a path breaker. A protégé of Leonard Bernstein (a Tanglewood legend), she will become the first female music director of a major American orchestra when she assumes the conductorship of the Baltimore Symphony in the 2007-2008 season. (She has already made history as Principal Conductor of England’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.) Ms. Alsop is a superb, charismatic conductor in every respect. A specialist in contemporary music, she has championed the work of American composer Christopher Rouse. Rouse’s Rapture was a stellar program opener. Impressionistic flute and misty strings form a sensuous prelude to an exciting display of brass and percussion fireworks. In Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 in E Minor, Opus 64 (a Koussevitzky and Bernstein specialty) Ms. Alsop made the familiar seem new and freshly minted. She produced excitement without vulgarity. Her Tchaikovsky had the grace and beauty of fine musical crystal. The vivid contrasts, balletic fluidity, and inner strength of this performance were a revelation. (In the famous Andante cantabile movement, BSO principal horn Joseph Sommerville played with glorious tonal hues, perfect articulation, and musical allure.) Marin Alsop is a conductor of the most extraordinary variety!

As soloist in the rarely heard Cello Concerto by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Ms. Alsop welcomed musical superstar Yo-Yo Ma. Written for the Russian cello virtuoso Raya Garbousova, the concerto exploits the instrument’s difficult high register. Barber’s boundless melodic inspiration takes inspired flight from the surging opening movement through the moving, poignant Andante and rousing bravura finale. Yo-Yo Ma met every daunting challenge of this wonderful score. His performance was a model of superlative instrumental display without affectation. On August 16 at the Florence Gould Auditorium of Seiji Ozawa Hall on Tanglewood’s Leonard Bernstein Campus, Yo-Yo Ma joined piano dynamo Emanuel Ax in an all Beethoven recital. For the first half of the program the cellist played a modified quasi Baroque instrument while Ax caressed the keyboard of a fortepiano. While these instruments produced thinner tone than their modern counterparts, the richness of Ma’s cello tone (with gut strings that produce a much darker sound) and Ax’s scintillating keyboard wizardry produced sprightly, aristocratic performances – the essence of great artistry! In Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No.5 in D, Opus 102, No.2, the musicians’ delicately embroidered melodic lines and insightful phrasing of the score’s long limbed thematic material was exhilarating. For the evening’s second half Ma played a 1733 Venetian Montagnana cello while Ax was seated at his customary modern Steinway. They vividly captured the demonic brilliance of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No.3 in A, Opus 69 while the dance rhythms of the concluding Allegro fugato were wonderfully alive. A memorable concert!

On August 18 the Kalichstein- Laredo- Robinson Trio (who will perform in Miami in February, 2006) took the stage of Ozawa Hall for an evening of great chamber music for the connoisseur. After 28 years together these three stellar musicians remain the state of the art. Joseph Kalichstein’s light, bright keyboard musicality, Jamie Laredo’s crystalline violin tone, and Sharon Robinson’s dark, rich cello sound (with the aura of molten lava) combine for a unique musical experience. Their effervescent performance of Mozart’s Piano Trio in B-flat, K.502 was a joyous opener. Mozart’s lyrical, endless melodies rippled joyfully through the warm acoustical ambience of the Gould Auditorium.

For Daniel (2004) by Joan Tower (1938- ) is a dramatic, moving, angry score that the composer dedicated to her late nephew Daniel MacArthur. The densely textured instrumental writing is often riveting. This splendid work was performed with bracing intensity by the trio. Ms. Tower was present to acknowledge a standing ovation by the enthusiastic audience. Brahms’s Piano Trio No.2 in C, Opus 87 was given dynamic treatment by Kalichstein, Laredo, and Robinson. Their strongly accentuated, vibrant, darkly songful performance was the sine qua non of great music making. A trio arrangement of George Gershwin’s Summertime from Porgy and Bess provided a velvet bon-bon of an encore.

On August 13 violinist Gil Shaham (who visits South Florida in February with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) joined the BSO for a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.4 in D, K.218 that was smooth as silk. Shaham’s finely spun tone, aristocratic phrasing, and perfect intonation produced Mozart of the most sublime variety. The long lined melody of the second movement Andante cantabile seemed frozen in time as Shaham worked his musical magic. The lithe, sparkling playing of the orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis was a model of what concerto collaboration should be – truly wonderful musicianship! Davis led a splendid performance of the Symphony No.10 in E Minor, Opus 93 by Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) that vividly conveyed the work’s poignant, autobiographical pathos. Davis captured the terrifying head long thrust of the Scherzo-Allegro, the agony of the Allegretto, and the irony and sarcasm of the finale. From the velvet cello tones of the opening (with famed cellist Jules Eskin in the first chair) to the crackling brass of the finale, the Boston Symphony was in powerhouse form.

On August 19 pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave a virtuosic rendition of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43 by Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Ohlsson’s tremendous pianistic technique was always attentive to the music’s inner layers. Ohlsson did not neglect the score’s dark subtext with its repeated use of the Dies Irae motif. The famous 18th variation was given crystalline treatment as Ohlsson’s flowing tone seemed to float above the lush orchestral strings. He was given rhythmically propulsive support by conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. Fruhbeck de Burgos is a master orchestral colorist and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Opus 35 was the perfect vehicle for his orchestral command. To hear Fruhbeck de Burgos’s transparent, crisp performance was like rediscovering music that had long been enveloped in heavy handed, ponderous readings. The light, crisp wind playing (highlighted by a splendidly articulated bassoon solo by Richard Svoboda) was simply magical! The conductor’s subtly, phrased, light treatment of the first movement and the long unbroken lyrical line of the Andante quasi allegretto really made the music glow anew! Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe contributed splendid, rich textured violin solos. Wonderful music for a magical evening at Tanglewood!

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