BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
JAMES LEVINE/ KURT MASUR/ LUDOVIC MORLOT
RICHARD GOODE/ EDWIN BARKER/ YO-YO MA/
STEFAN JACKIW/ JOSHUA BELL (7-27/29, 8-3/4/5-07)
AN INTELLECTUAL OASIS
By Lawrence Budmen
Illuminated by pastoral greenery and the awesome beauty of the Berkshires, Tanglewood is more than just a venue where music is made. It is a state of mind, a cultural and intellectual oasis. The eclectic galleries and shops in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts USA act as a counterpoint to the performances on the sprawling Tanglewood campus. Conceived in the 1930ís by Serge Koussevitzky as a summer home for the Boston Symphony and a music education center, Tanglewood continues to thrive under the BSOís current music director James Levine. This summer Levine was present on campus for most of the festival and devoted considerable time and effort to working with the gifted students of the Tanglewood Music Center. (This report will center on the concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra while a future piece will detail the varied activities of the music center.)
After three seasons under Levine, the Boston Symphony has definitely become his instrument. The orchestral sonority is lighter and airer. The plush string tone and exquisite winds have a touch of French ťlan. The brass section has mellowed; their tone is brilliant but never harsh. In many ways the orchestra now sounds closer to the way it did under Koussevitzky (at least as can be discerned from recordings). With three different programs on most weekends during the eight week Tanglewood season, the Bostonians work one of the most challenging schedules in the music world. Today the ensembleís standard is remarkably high; their music making consistent whether Levine or a guest maestro mounts the podium.
On August 3 wind and rain preceded the concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed but Levine and his musicians were in top form for one of this conductorís typically ambitious programs. From the fierce opening chords of Beethovenís Coriolan Overture, Levine exhibited Toscanini like drive, the music proceeding with irreversible momentum; yet the sweetness and precision of the string playing exuded warmth on a chilly night. Nearly two hours later Ravelís Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2 emerged with Gallic lightness which Levine spiced with reminders of the scoreís often bold harmonic ambiguity. Conducting with taut efficiency, Levine illuminated the layered textures of Ravelís instrumentation. (This performance reminded me of the classic recording by Levineís one time mentor George Szell.) In the initial Daybreak section, the lush strings (led by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe) seemed to embody the musicís cosmic sensuality. Elizabeth Roweís pure, scintillating flute deftly traced the roulades of the Pantomime. Levine upped the velocity level in a fiery Danse generale, abetted by agile brass. This exciting performance received prolonged applause and cheers.
Mozartís Piano Concerto No.18 in B-flat Major, K.456 offered a near perfect collaboration between Levine and Richard Goode. (Levineís superb conducting of Mozartís operas at the Met has become legendary.) The elegant wind filigree in the orchestral tutti of the opening Allegro vivace served notice of a stylishly sculpted performance. Goode is a patrician of the keyboard. His sensitive touch, rigorous classicism, and attention to inner voicings yielded Mozartean dividends. Goode and Levine brought high drama and clarity to the instrumental line in the stormy central section of the Andante un poco sostenuto. The springy lightness of the Allegro vivace rondo finale was an unmitigated delight.
John Harbisonís Concerto for Bass viol and Orchestra proved an important addition to the repertoire of the lower end of the string family. The bass viol makes a somewhat lighter sound than the more familiar double bass. Harbison, practically a resident composer with the Boston Symphony, is a master of instrumental timbres. (The score was commissioned by the BSO for its 125th anniversary.) His sleek, transparent orchestral fabric brightly supports the solo instrument without ever overwhelming it. Aaron Copland-like fanfares (in this case for an uncommon instrument) and jazz influences dominate the work but Harbison strikes a lyrical bent in the central Andante. Bostonís principal bass Edwin Barker played Koussevitzkyís bass viol, a beautiful instrument with a singing tone. Barkerís lovely tonal hues and fearless agility were unfazed by the scoreís daunting challenges. Levine (who has championed Harbisonís music, including his opera The Great Gatsby) led with rhythmic momentum and highlighted instrumental felicities. The composer joined soloist and conductor for an enthusiastic ovation.
Levineís music making reached incandescence on August 4 when he substituted for Edo De Waart (who was sidelined with a back injury) in an all Dvorak program. Surprisingly this concert marked the first time that Yo-Yo Ma and Levine had worked together. They proved to be musical soul mates. With Levine commanding resonant Brahmsian textures from his ensemble, Ma imbued the Cello Concerto in B minor with waves of warm, flowing, richly spun tone. His flawless technique and impassioned, high intensity approach made this thrice familiar masterwork sound freshly minted. The second movement Adagio, ma non troppo became a lyrical string lied, awash in nostalgic yearning; the Finale was bracing, Maís phrasing agitated and intense. Levine brought forth orchestral details that are rarely audible in more mundane performances. This was a collaboration made in musical heaven. In Levineís freshly scrubbed rendition, the Symphony No.9 in E minor (From the New World) became a newly revealed romantic masterpiece in the tradition of Brahms and Schubert. The weighty sonority and deliberate tempos of the opening movement served notice that Levineís interpretation was revisionist. The famous Largo became an instrumental aria, played with the most exquisite, scintillating tone by Robert Sheena. A lilting, dancing Furiant with agitated undercurrents encompassed the Scherzo. In the climactic Allegro con fuoco, energy and tension were combined in perfect proportion. The concert was a triumph for conductor and orchestra.
One may have thought that the Boston Symphony would have been worn out by the next afternoonís performance (August 5) when the gifted young French conductor Ludovic Morlot subbed for De Waart but that was far from the case. In a demanding program, the BSO sounded spectacular. The premiere of Dutch composer Robin De Raafís Entangled Tales was a qualified success. De Raaf writes skillfully for the orchestra but his Sacre de Printemps tinged score lacked form or coherence.
Dutch violinist Janine Jansen was also a no show. But her replacement proved nothing short of spectacular. The 22 year old American born Stefan Jackiw is a star in the making. His soaring, intense traversal of Mendelssohnís Violin Concerto in E minor received a standing ovation from an audience that was clearly surprised by his dazzling technique and remarkable precision. In the Andante, Jackiw spun his tone down to a mere slender thread while tracing the most beautiful of singing lines. Unlike many violinists, he did not skip over notes in the finale. Jackiw sailed through the Allegro molto vivace with admirable musicality, absolute accuracy and rapid fire bravado. Already represented by major management, this terrific violinist is headed for a major career.
Rachmaninoffís Symphony No.3 in A minor is played too infrequently. All of the composerís melodic inspiration is on display in this score but it is tinged with a spikier modernism and ominous references to the Dies Irae. (Even an ultra-traditionalist like Rachmaninoff had to acknowledge the artistic ferment of his era.) Morlot is a major podium talent. He brought burning passion and throbbing rhythmic tension to this wonderful score, producing a romantic, sensuous performance. The orchestraís gleaming strings, glowing brass and knockout percussion had a field day with Rachmaninoffís opulent orchestration.
The preceding weekend Kurt Masur, who just celebrated his eightieth birthday, was on the Tanglewood podium. Like fine wine, Masur has only ripened with age. His consummate mastery is now balanced by an autumnal serenity that brings greater depth to his music making. Prokofievís Symphony No.1 in D Major, the opening work on the July 27 concert, has long been a Masur specialty. He brought genial verve to every bar, pinpointing the composerís quirky instrumental and harmonic invention. Prokofievís Violin Concerto No.1 glistened with color from Joshua Bell in prime form, his radiant tone engulfing the music shed. Bell took the Scherzo: Vivacissimo at a headlong clip; a gutsy, whirlwind devilís dance. He spun the Moderato-Allegro moderato as one elongated, songful ode; searing violin and exquisite winds in beautiful duet at the conclusion. Masurís reading of Beethovenís Symphony No.1 in C Major was masterful. I have never heard a better performance of this score. The magical balance of silken strings and lovely winds attest to Masurís orchestral wizardry. From the vivacious opening movement to the aristocratically spun Andante cantabile con moto to the Rossinian vigor of the finale, this was a superb Beethoven 1st, a performance to remember.
A July 29 matinee found Masur leading the last three Mozart symphonies. This venerable conductorís Mozart is unabashedly old fashioned. Definitely not a believer in period instrument orthodoxy, Masur utilized a large orchestral ensemble, emphasizing warm instrumental timbres and strong contrasts. This was big boned Mozart in the tradition of Beecham and Krips with memorable turns of phrase amidst high drama. Masurís virile, elegant Menuetto: Allegretto in the Symphony No.39 in E-flat Major was a vibrant example. The Symphony No.40 in G minor emerged dramatic, neo-romantic, proto sturm und drang with a high intensity Allegro assai finale. Masurís subtle performance of the Symphony No.41 in C Major (Jupiter) proved most rewarding. In the second movement Andante cantabile, he vividly captured the tragedy beneath Mozartís glittering cascade of instrumental timbres. Masur managed the Menuetto with elegant simplicity; sincerity over artifice. The grandly fugal Molto allegro finale was distinguished by marvelous clarity of instrumental texture. With the Boston Symphony in top form, the melding of natural beauty and glorious music was indeed special. That is the magic of Tanglewood!