Artistry and Ambience
Exhilarating music making at Tanglewood


Lenox, Massachusetts, USA -- In 1936 Mary Aspinwall Tappan deeded her family estate Tanglewood to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a dream was born. The renowned Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky conceived an American music festival to rival the great summer musicales of the European continent. Set in the glorious Berkshire mountains, Tanglewood is an oasis of tranquility and beauty that beckons artists and music lovers from around the globe. In 1940 the Berkshire Music Center was created as an advanced music education center for gifted young artists. The combination of talented youth and distinguished masters makes Tanglewood one of the world's great artistic resources. A weekend at this cultural mecca produced some exhilarating music making.

The Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos was a commanding figure on the Tanglewood campus. He led the Boston Symphony Orchestra (on 17 July 2004) in a virile, taut realization of Beethoven's Symphony No 8 in F, Op 93 that really captured the rhythmic pulse that is the central focus of the score. Bolstered by superbly rich string playing and admirably precise winds, the conductor highlighted wonderful subtleties -- with a full range of instrumental dynamics -- in the Allegro vivace finale. This splendid Beethoven performance was only a prelude to the evening's true event -- an hour of excerpts (both vocal and orchestral) from Richard Wagner's operatic masterpiece Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Fruhbeck de Burgos has conducted this score many times at the Deutsche Opera, Berlin and is the absolute master of Wagner's expansive musical vistas. He brought magisterial eloquence to the Prelude to Act 3 (with mellow, golden toned playing from the BSO brass). He found real musical character in the Dance of the Apprentices which too often is played as a light trifle. The vociferous, full voiced singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (who performed without scores under their distinguished director John Oliver) made the opening and closing chorale perorations memorable. The Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel sang three of Hans Sachs' monologues with a depth of dramatic penetration that was awesome. The dark, velvet lava of Terfel's voice resounded in the admirably warm and clear acoustics of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. (Hans Sachs will surely be a great future role for Terfel in the opera house.) A great performance and an unforgettable concert!

On 19 July at the Florence Gould Auditorium of Seiji Ozawa Hall, Fruhbeck de Burgos conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, a student ensemble. Richard Strauss's 1899 tone poem Ein Heldenleben, Op 40 is a massive orchestral work which demands the utmost in instrumental virtuosity. One could hardly believe the members of this orchestra were Tanglewood Fellows! The lush, transparent strings, sweet toned winds, sonorous brass, and bracing percussion congealed into a first rate ensemble. The lengthy, demanding violin solos were played brilliantly (with both ravishing tone and agility) by Carrie Kennedy, a student at City University of New York from Houston, Texas. From the striking opening bars to the concluding solemn brass chords, Fruhbeck de Burgos brought sweeping radiance to Strauss's sprawling canvas. (The attractive brown wood surfaces of Ozawa Hall contributed to the warm, resonant acoustical ambience.) His Haydn was no less distinguished. The incisive, vigorous string playing made that master's Symphony No 1 in D (the first of 104 symphonies) a delightful classical bon-bon. Haydn's Symphony No 6 in D (Le Matin) unfolded in a series of dramatic contrasts and rapid fire changes of tempo. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra gave a bold, wonderfully colorful performance. The clarity and bright, pin point accuracy of Mercedes Smith's flute solos were scintillating. At age 71, Fruhbeck de Burgos is at the height of his powers -- an outstanding interpreter and superb orchestral technician!

On 16 July Kurt Masur led the BSO in a performance of Dvorák's Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 95 (From the New World) that made familiar music sound new and freshly minted. The gentle lyricism (abetted by darkly polished string playing) that Masur brought to the opening Allegro molto was a musical revelation! John Ferrillo's plaintive, vibrant oboe solo in the familiar Largo caressed the ear. Masur's soft dynamics and proto Toscanini tempo brought musical surprise to this slow movement. His broad delineation of the Trio section of the Scherzo: Molto vivace never lacked for soaring musical line. The fiery conclusion of the Allegro con fuoco capped a stellar performance. Masur drew dazzling playing from the Boston musicians in a sparkling transversal of Mikhail Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla. (The BSO is clearly in great form and ready for its new music director James Levine who takes charge this fall.) Midori was soloist in a sizzling rendition of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op 35. Once a gifted teenager, Midori is now a mature artist and an arresting musician. (She has recently been appointed to the Jascha Heifetz Professorship Chair at UCLA.) Her expansive view of the opening Allegro moderato had Russian soul and pathos to burn. Her blazing performance of the Finale: Allegro vivacisimo may have been the fastest and most exciting on record. Perhaps this was what Paganini's playing was like -- great violinistic artistry! Masur, long a Tchaikovsky specialist, led a supple, eloquent accompaniment.

Conducting on a less Apollonian level took center stage on 18 July when Donald Runnicles directed the New York based Orchestra of St Luke's in a Sunday matinée concert. While the Scottish-born Runnicles has made some fine recordings of Mozart and Beethoven works, his appearances in Miami with the New World Symphony have been disappointing. Runnicles conducted a heavy handed, ponderous account of Beethoven's Symphony No 7 in A, Op 92. Too often crucial instrumental details were obscured in the mushy orchestral texture. Dynamics were overly loud. There was never a true pianissimo to be heard in this performance. While the St Luke's orchestra is a proficient ensemble, it can not match the brilliance of the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Runnicles has made his reputation primarily as an opera conductor. This experience was on display in a lithe, nicely proportioned performance of the Overture to Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (with a piquant oboe solo by Melanie Feld). His accompaniment to Joshua Bell's passionate, intense performance of Brahms's Violin Concerto in D, Op 77 was beautifully dovetailed to the violinist's elasticity of phrasing. Bell's singing tone soared in a rhapsodic Adagio. His own daredevil cadenzas were dispensed with virtuosic glee and the finale: Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace was a cascade of brilliant Hungarian-tinged pyrotechnics. Exciting, incendiary Brahms!

Two highly talented Vocal Fellows made a strong impression in a morning chamber music concert on 18 July at Ozawa Hall. The opulent voiced mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy (from Tralee, Ireland) gave a ravishing performance of the song cycle sicut umbra ... (1970) by Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) in celebration of the composer's centenary. This disturbing, haunting music is hypnotic! Ms Murrihy's fervent singing was beautifully supported by an instrumental ensemble under the sensitive direction of Conducting Fellow Helene Bouchez, a native of Lyon, France. Baritone Charles Temkey (from Patchogue, New York) gave ardent voice to four moody songs by Henri Duparc (1848-1933). Temkey's commanding vocal declamation and warm, high lying, distinctively French baritonal sound recall Francis Poulenc's collaborator and frequent interpreter Pierre Bernac. Casey Jo Ahn Robards provided multicolored pianistic support. (Both Murrihy and Temkey were coached by the distinguished soprano Lucy Shelton.) A glowing performance of Brahms's autumnal Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op 115 spotlighted Timothy Carter, a brilliant wind player and superb musician (from Southwest Harbor, Maine). Carter's gleaming tone, innate musicality, and musical daring produced a striking, memorable interpretation of this late Brahms masterwork. The surging string textures of violinists Anne Donaldson and Gulrukh Abdikadirova, violist Nadia Sirota, and cellist Elise Pittenger complemented Carter's riveting performance. An afternoon concert (on 19 July) in the rustic Chamber Music Hall (one of the original 1940s buildings) featured the New World Symphony's Eva Kozma in the string contingent (along with violist Cindy Mong and cellist Marieve Bock) for a daringly Romantic traversal of Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47. The players were not afraid to play with broad rubato and heart on the sleeve passion. Pianist Berenika Zakrzewski approached the music with glittering, almost Chopinesque bravura. Mong's cello solo in the Andante cantabile had dark hued tonal resonance and heartfelt intensity of utterance. A gripping interpretation! Oboist Stefan Farkas gave a spacious, characterful performance of Schumann's lyrical Three Romances, Op 94. Oboist Nicholas Masterson, bassoonist Stevi Caufield, and pianist Ji-Hye Chang teamed up for a lively version of Poulenc's saucy, charming Trio of 1926.

Tanglewood is a magical place to make music. The mature artistry of Masur and Fruhbeck de Burgos, the impulsive excitement of Midori, and the brilliant gifts of the student players all shone brightly in this memorable space, surrounded by nature. Bryn Terfel's Hans Sachs held promise of great things to come. A wonderful meeting of artistry and ambience!

Copyright © 30 July 2004 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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