VERDI: DON CARLO (7-28-07)


J.S. BACH (7-25/ 26-07)


By Lawrence Budmen

When modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn bought a hilltop farm in Becket, Massachusetts, USA, the roots of America’s first festival of dance were planted. Initially used as rehearsal space for the famous Denishawn Company that Shawn ran with his wife, the legendary Ruth St. Dennis (and later for Shawn’s all male dance troupe), the rural retreat became Jacob’s Pillow, a spectacular annual kaleidoscope of international dance. The Ted Shawn Theater, opened in 1942, became the first auditorium in the United States specially designed for dance. (The theater’s architect Joseph Franz, a Berkshire local, also designed the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood.) Directed by Shawn until his death in 1972, the festival has featured such legends as Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham Denishawn alum), Dame Margot Fonteyn, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Such illustrious international companies as Ballet Rambert, Les Grand Ballet Canadiens and the Dance Theater of Harlem made their first U.S. appearances at Jacob’s Pillow. The 2007 festival marks the event’s 75th anniversary season, a milestone in the history of dance in America.

On August 7, 2007 the Mark Morris Dance Group opened a five day engagement at the Ted Shawn Theater on the bucolic campus. (Morris made his first appearance at the festival in 1982.) One of the great choreographic artists of our time, Morris presented a retrospective of his work from the late 1980’s (when his company was in residence at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels) to his most recent dance pieces. Unlike many dance companies that appear at this event, Morris performs to live music. This marked a wonderful collaboration between the Morris Company and Fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center. 

Italian Concerto, the opening work on the program, was not only one of the choreographer’s most recent creations (2007) but one of his best. With pianist Yauheniya Yesmanovich playing superbly articulated, idiomatic Bach, Morris’ rapid fire choreographic invention was wonderfully witty. Amber Darragh and Joe Bowie were the very embodiment of Morris’ great choreography. The ensemble finale was a whirlwind as inspired as Bach’s music. (Paul Palazzo’s lighting was delicately elegant.) As in his settings of Handel and Purcell, Baroque music brings out the best in Morris. Italian Concerto is a masterpiece. 
Looky, another 2007 work, found Morris at his most playful. This series of blackouts and sketches is great entertainment. Studies for Disklavier, the original score by Kyle Gann, is wonderfully satirical, at once celebrating and sending up a variety of contemporary musical styles. Such distinguished designers as Christine van Loon and Isaac Mizrahi contribute a cornucopia of wacky costumes.

Candleflowerdance “for Susan Sontag” is a 2005 work. Dedicated to the memory of the renowned novelist, essayist, political activist and filmmaker, Morris’ piece is elegiac, even angry, in tone. Despite some powerful images – the specter of death is never far away –this piece is not the choreographer’s best work. Sadness is not an emotion that comes easily to Morris. Stravinsky’s harmonically ambiguous Serenade in A is the edgy score, here played artfully by the gifted pianist Yegor Shevtsov. Nicole Pearce’s lighting evokes a haunting aura.

Love Song Waltzes (1988) finds Morris in rigorous classical mode. The choreography evokes the moods of romance – aristocratic, passionate, and volatile with homoeroticism close to the surface. This ballet is unabashedly lavish and grandly emotional. Morris’ swirling choreographic kaleidoscope is the very embodiment of the romantic waltz. Brahms’ Liebesliederwalzer, Opus 52 was gorgeously performed. The beautiful articulation and precise vocalism of soprano Katherine Whyte, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, tenor Siddhartha Misra and baritone Mischa Bouvier and the limpid, dreamy pianism of Tatiana Vassilieva and Bonnie Wagner was as exuberant and impassioned as the dance itself. The richly intense lighting of James F. Ingalls set the romantic mood. Morris’ splendid dance ensemble – Craig Biesecker, Samuel Black, Joe Bowie, Elisa Clark, Rita Donahue, Lauren Grant, John Heginbotham, Brandon McDonald, Maile Okamura, Noah Vinson, Jenn Weddel and Michele Yard – was a treasure to behold. Love Song Waltzes is Morris at his grandest – a memorable conclusion to a terrific evening of dance. Jacob’s Pillow continues to make dance history. 

The Tanglewood Music Center was founded in 1940 by Serge Koussevitzky as an academy for advanced music studies by the most gifted young instrumentalists, vocalists, composers and conductors. Each summer 150 young musicians study with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and such distinguished faculty as pianists Emanuel Ax, Claude Frank, Peter Serkin and Ursula Oppens, violinists Donald Weilerstein and Joseph Silverstein, sopranos Phyllis Curtin and Lucy Shelton and composers John Harbison, William Bolcom, Elliott Carter and Colin Matthews. Many guest artists at Tanglewood concerts (such as Yo-Yo Ma and Andre Previn) give master classes. James Levine has taken an active role in the center’s activities. He heads the conducting program, coaches the vocal fellows, and conducts the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in a fully staged student opera production and a concert version of a large scale work. Not since Koussevitzky has a Boston Symphony music director been so involved with the center’s educational mission. 

On July 28 Levine led the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in a concert version of Verdi’s Don Carlo (in the four act Italian version). The sumptuous playing of the student ensemble was a testament to Levine’s teaching skills. His conducting was cogent and lucid with bursts of white hot Italianate intensity. Levine’s masterful articulation of Verdi’s grandiose musical paragraphs and superstructure was exciting. He fielded a first rate cast. Pride of place went to the female protagonists. Patricia Racette was a memorable Elizabeth of Valois. Her radiant, pure soprano gleamed resplendently in the role’s high tessitura. Racette’s softest pianissimos floated miraculously through the vast performance space; her exquisite phrasing defined Verdian magic, particularly in the fourth act aria Tu che le vanita. Luciana D’Intino was a fiery Princess Eboli in the grand Italian mezzo tradition of Giulietta Simionato and Fiorenza Cossotto. While her high range was rather light, D’Intino’s vibrant, gutsy lower register and raw but thrilling chest voice produced show stopping ovations for her Veil Song and O don fatale. 

In the title role, Johan Botha offered a powerful, ringing tenor with tireless vocal heft. After three hours, his steely top tones were still secure and thrilling. The rich, mellow warmth of Zeljko Lucic’s strong baritone commanded attention. His beautiful cantabile line brought forth memories of Ettore Bastianini and Robert Merrill. This singer is the authentic Verdian article. (Lucic’s teacher and coach is the great Yugoslavian mezzo Biserka Cvejic.) As the tormented King Phillip II, James Morris showed serious signs of vocal wear, his pitch sometimes unsteady. As the evening wore on, he gained vocal strength and freedom. His aria Ella giammai m’amo was movingly projected. Morris was commanding in his scene with the Grand Inquisitor. A dark basso profundo, Paata Burchuladze was vociferous and frightening as that evil character. In a piece of Technicolor casting, the Kirov’s Evgeny Nikitin unfurled a deep, typically black Slavic bass as the mysterious monk. Kiera Duffy impressed with a lovely lyric soprano as Tebaldo. Ileana Montalberti’s high floating tones were indeed heavenly (as the celestial voice in the auto-da-fe scene). Under John Oliver’s strong direction, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (singing without scores) offered thrilling ensemble vocalism. Levine produced an evening of high voltage, exciting Verdi. 

The Tanglewood Music Center’s Festival of Contemporary Music is a festival within a festival. Under the direction of John Harbison, this year’s event was devoted to the Generation of ’38 –an astonishingly large and varied group of composers born in 1938, give or take a year. At the two concerts I attended the stylistic range was vast, the quality of compositional invention uneven. At the opening concert on July 29 at Seiji Ozawa Hall, David Borden’s electronic Earth Journeys: For Alvin Curran, written for the 1973 film The Exorcist, was the essence of cinematic horror in tone but also an early example of repetitive, minimalist principles. Harvey Sollberger’s The Advancing Moment (1981), a coarse, loud exercise, did anything but exert forward momentum. It was a test of instrumental extremes that taxed the talents of the student musicians to little avail.

The outstanding piece on this program came from Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Her String Quartet No.2, composed for the Emerson String Quartet in 1998, is a poetic, emotional, lyrically expansive canvass that recalls the late quartets of Shostakovich. Zwilich’s musical landscape is haunting in its theatrical passion and power. A poignant subtext permeates Zwilich’s agitated string writing. The piece was given an intense performance by the New Fromm Players, a group of recent Tanglewood Music Center fellows who specialize in contemporary music – violinists Yuki Numata and Martin Shultz (both members of Miami’s New World Symphony), violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Lachezar Kostov. This group’s silky tone and superb musicianship lit up the stage. Shultz was a powerful soloist in David Behrman’s Protests 1917-2004. Set to thematic threads by Behrman’s teacher Wallingford Riegger (who was blacklisted and persecuted during the infamous McCarthy era) the score accompanies a statement (made in 1917) protesting World War I by French poet and decorated war hero Siegfried Sassoon. Behrman’s acerbic musical fragments form intense commentary to the moving text which still resonates in contemporary terms. Aperture, a new score by Jason Eckardt (not a member of the Generation of ’38) that was commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, was mostly chaotic except for a bluesy central movement for solo flute, eloquently played by Sandy Hughes. 

On August 1 the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, fresh from its triumphant Don Carlo performance, tackled an ambitious program of Generation of ’38 orchestral scores at Ozawa Hall. John Corigliano’s Troubadours (Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra), composed for Sharon Isbin in 1993, is one of this composer’s most atmospheric works. Spare, misty orchestration evokes a confluence of French and Spanish influences, ancient and modern. Elegant guitar strophes contrast with antiphonal effects from brass and percussion. Drawing on a contemporary neo-Renaissance style fused with impressionistic colors, Corigliano has concocted a winning piece that charms and delights. Eliot Fisk was sensitive, poetic and incisive in the virtuoso solo guitar writing. Tanglewood conducting fellow Erik Nielsen was attentive to the score’s subtle nuances and shifting dynamics. The TMC Orchestra excelled in these contemporary scores, offering brilliant playing and vivid instrumental timbres.

Charles Wuorinen is an unrepentant atonalist. He is capable of writing powerfully communicative music but his Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra (1985) is a loud, coarse, incoherent score. The tremendously difficult solo violin part was essayed by Yuki Numata with superb bravura technique, remarkable precision and eloquent artistry. Gifted conducting fellow Kazem Abdullah managed to bring clarity to the score’s clangorous instrumental chaos. Strike Zones, Percussion Concerto (2001) by Joan Tower is a tour de force, replete with colorful percussive colors (particularly from mallet instruments) and complex rhythmic interaction between soloist and ensemble. Navigating a large battery of percussion, Nicholas Tolle was simply terrific, bringing a sense of rhythmic variety and elegance to usually harsh sounding instruments. TMC conducting fellow Sean Newhouse provided an insistent, intelligently conceived orchestral performance. 

William Bolcom’s Whitman Triptych for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra (1995) is a powerful setting of three of Walt Whitman’s most disturbing poems. Come Up from the Fields Father is a harrowing portrait of a family being informed that their son has died in the Civil War (from Whitman’s Taps). Bolcom’s setting is heartbreaking in its simplicity; the coda is especially poignant. A soft repeated figure opens Scented Herbage of My Breast before a shattering climax leads to a quietly moving epilogue. Fiercely motoric figurations run through Years of the Modern (from Leaves of Grass). At times the vocal line is angular; at others lyrically expansive. Bolcom’s settings have passion. He strongly responds to Whitman’s intense pacifism. Christin-Marie Hill’s perfect diction and richly molten mezzo sound were emotionally riveting. TMC conducting coordinator Stefan Asbury offered consummate command of the score’s subtle instrumental coloration and surging orchestral peaks. Wuorinen, Tower, and Bolcom were on hand to share the stage with the hard working artists. 

The chamber music concerts at Ozawa Hall on Sunday mornings offer the opportunity to hear TMC fellows in pillars of the repertoire as well as rarities and student compositions. On August 5, clarinetist Michael Rezzo impressed with his exquisite phrasing and lovely tone in Brahms’ great Sonata in F Minor, Op.120, No.1. He captured the music’s introspective pathos superbly. Coached by Emanuel Ax, pianist Yegor Shevtsov conquered Brahms’ grandiose keyboard writing but tended to be overpowering. What can be more appropriate for a Sunday morning than a Bach cantata? The moving, serene melodic beauty of Cantata BWV 157 was given an inspired performance by a particularly gifted TMC contingent, coached by John Harbison, once a renowned choral conductor and Bach specialist. Tenor Stephen Ng was agile in the score’s coloratura flights in the upper register. The rich bass-baritone voice and eloquent projection of Ulysses Thomas were wonderful to hear. This young singer should have a bright future. The gorgeous tone of Timothy Sawyier on oboe d’amore highlighted the stylish instrumental ensemble – organist Yana Reznik, violinist Francesca Anderegg, cellist Morgen Johnson, and double bassist Jessica Grabbe

Five hard working brass players under the Boston Symphony’s Peter Chapman had the thankless task of playing student composition fellow Alexandra Fol’s Brass Quintet, an inexpressive racket. But composition fellow Kay Rhie’s song cycle I Hear the Sound of Trees abounded in lovely, songful and emotive vocal writing in the art song tradition of Ned Rorem. Her beautiful settings of poems by Whitman and A.R. Ammons were supported by tangy wind and keyboard timbres. Soprano Eve-Lyn de la Haye’s sumptuous vocalism was particularly striking in her radiant high register. Sean Newhouse conducted eloquently. The ensemble included such TMC stalwarts as Numata, Kostov, clarinetist Brent Besner, and Angelina Gadeliya, a particularly sensitive pianist.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor was treated to an ultra intense performance, a veritable x-ray of the score. Violinist Hannah Choi was extremely virtuosic. She clearly is soloist caliber. Violist Leah Swann was highly expressive and emitted rounded, golden tone. The other fine TMC players were violinist Alex Russell and cellist Marie-Michel Beauparlant. There was nothing student like about the invigorating performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major that concluded the concert. This strong account was filled with constant surprises – the impetuous opening, the sudden unusual turns of phrase, the infectious verve of the Scherzo, and the headlong vitality of the final Presto. The superb playing and aristocratic musicianship of violinists Rommel Fernandes, Julia D. Hunter, Rena Ishii, and Lorna Tsai, violists Sharon Bielik and Jonina Mazzeo, and cellists Christopher Hopkins and Min-Jeong Kang were cause for celebration. Here was a high spirited, modernist, yet elegant reinvention of a repertoire staple. 

The Netherlands Bach Society, a stellar European chamber choir and period instrument ensemble, took the stage of Ozawa Hall on July 25 and 26. Led by the authoritative Jos Van Veldhoven, this ten member choir and twenty-two piece orchestra offered as inspired a performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (on July 25) as I have heard in nearly five decades of concert going. With only two voices to a part, the choir was exquisitely balanced. Contrapuntal lines that often emerge as a blur had extreme clarity and impact. The sheer beauty of the singing of the Netherlands Bach Society Vocal Ensemble was remarkable. Van Veldhoven’s springy, bouncy tempos and rhythmic urgency radiated the true joy of Bach. The concluding Dona nobis pacem was overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. All the choirs of the instrumental ensemble were superlative. The rich, stylish violins, divinely ethereal flutes (Rachel Brown and Dorothe Janssens), exquisitely expressive principal oboe (Washington McClain), remarkably accurate and sonorous valveless horn (Vaclav Luks), and peeling, ringing trumpets astounded the senses. There are few period bands that equal this group. 

The vocal quartet was just as impressive. Maria Keohane’s bright soprano floated beguilingly in the highest reaches of the vocal stratosphere. The radiant soprano of Johannette Zomer commanded attention. Countertenor Robin Blaze dazzled with his distinctively pure, emotionally vibrant voice and stunning agility. The beautifully mellow, sonorous low bass of Peter Harvey proved versatile at both ends of his vocal range. This was a B minor Mass to remember!

The following evening’s program (July 26) gave concertmaster Johannes Leertouwer the solo spotlight for Bach’s Violin Concerto No.2 in E Major. Leertouwer, a musicians’ musician, played with dizzying lightness, bringing zesty energy to Bach’s outer movements and long limbed sublimity to the Adagio, supported by a splendid string ensemble. The secular cantata for the name day of King Augustus III, Elector of Saxony, Auf, schmetternde Tone der muntern Trompeten, BWV 207a is not Bach’s most inspired work. (The opening chorus does impressively recast the thematic material of the third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.1.) However the secular cantata celebrating the birthday of the Electress Maria Josepha of Saxony, Tonet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! BWV 214 is a marvelous example of Bach’s creative recycling. Four movements from the Christmas Oratorio are brilliantly adapted with wonderful interaction between the choir and solo quartet. This too rarely heard score is a gem. After leading exciting performances of the cantatas, Van Veldhoven responded to the standing ovations by repeating the Dona nobis pacem from the Mass. “Let us end with peace,” he said. The divine beauty of that music and the Dutch ensemble’s soaring performance telegraphed a message for our time. 

The salon elegance of the music room at the charming Seven Hills Inn in Lenox is the venue for the Stockbridge Summer Music Series. On August 6 the excellent Boston Trio, resident ensemble at the New England Conservatory, demonstrated remarkable versatility. Despite the room’s very bright acoustics, these three terrific musicians delivered exciting, technically adept performances. Clarinetist Benjamin Seltzer joined two of the group’s members for Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat major, Op.11. Best known as a piano-violin-cello piece, the clarinet version (in place of the violin) is an intriguing variant. Seltzer’s warmly resonant tone and superb dexterity were riveting. Cellist Alison Eldredge, an outstanding soloist in her own right, phrased the glorious second movement theme eloquently. Pianist Heng-Jin Park’s strong rhythmic sense was on vivid display in the vivacious Tema con Variazioni. 

In three movements from Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, Irina Muresanu’s impassioned violin and rhapsodic sweep captured the music’s blazing energy. She beautifully delineated the Baroque cadence of the conclusion of the Winter section. Dvorak’s Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65 is Brahmsian romanticism with a nod to the Czech composer’s nationalistic mode. The Boston Trio gave this gorgeous work a superb performance. A hyper intense Allegro ma non troppo was succeeded by the aristocratically spun, folksy charms of the Allegro grazioso. The players brought heavenly serenity to the Poco adagio, the score’s heart and soul. But the best came last. The Allegro con brio was delivered with exhilarating vigor; the playing absolutely terrific. What a superlative conclusion to a rousing evening! In the Berkshires, the hills are indeed alive with the sound of music. 

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