Music

Two Premieres and Revival of a Standard and a Forgotten Charmer at Tanglewood: Asbury, Aspinall, and Farrell Conducting the TMC Orchestra; Intimacies of O’Keefe and Stieglitz by Kevin Puts Premiered by the BSO under Nelsons

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Monday, July 15, 2019 8:00 PM
Seiji Ozawa Hall
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Stefan Asbury, conductor, with TMC Conducting Fellows Nathan Aspinall and Killian Farrell

Respighi  – Botticelli Triptych
Nathan Aspinall, Conductor
Helen Grime – Limina (world premiere; TMC/BSO commission)
Killian Farrell, Conductor
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6
Stefan Asbury, Conductor

My own Tanglewood season began with this solid program in Seiji Ozawa Hall: a neglected program piece by an early 20th century composer, once more famous than he is today because of two isolated tone poems, the premiere of a substantial new work by a prominent former TMC Fellow, and a fresh look at an over-familiar symphony—the warhorse of all warhorses, some might say—by one of the canonical 19th century composers.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) was a musicologist as well as a composer of a wide range of pieces written for a variety of instruments, from solo to opera. He belonged to a generation of composers among whom the music of the past enjoyed a lively interest, for example, Casella and Malipiero, who respectively produced important editions of 19th century piano music and Monteverdi. Respighi is remembered more for his updating of old music for modern instruments, both as arrangements and as passages in original compositions. More broadly, the past, from ancient Rome through Rossini, haunted his imagination, as the Botticelli Triptych (Trittico botticelliano) in this program vividly demonstrates. The Italian past pervades even the orchestral tone poems, Le Fontane di Roma (1915-16) and I Pini di Roma (1923-4), which became favorites in Italian and American concert halls in subsequent decades, with the third work of the trilogy, Feste romane (1928) failing to catch on to the same extent. Italian conductors espoused the two hits, including Arturo Toscanini, who conducted them often in the United States. Audiences, however, eventually drifted in the direction of the critics, who found vulgarity in his colorful orchestrations and extreme dynamics and lost track of Respighi’s meticulous craftsmanship and sophistication.

Popular—in the sense of accessible—works have a place in concert halls, obviously, and the Trittico botticelliano is a telling example of a carefully tooled work of imagination and color, which might well fill seats with newcomers without causing excessive annoyance among regulars. The work is polished and pleasing, offering musical ekphraseis of three favorite works by Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, L’Adorazione dei Magi, and La Nascita di Venere. Respighi’s aural envisionings belong to an enthusiastic era which is no longer our own. Contemporary students of Renaissance art will tend towards a dryer view of them, while for the hoards of tourists who clog the Uffizi, they are no longer objects of mystery and beauty, but backgrounds for selfies. I was quite surprised by what details struck the composer’s fancy. In his musical narratives, he is naively interested in the stories told in the pictures and in motifs which related to popular features of Italian culture, like the Christmastide bagpipes in the Adoration—unless that relates more to his view of the taste of his audience. In any case, Respighi’s evocations offer a pleasurable supplement to the writings of Pater and Berenson.

Nathan Aspinall led a reduced TMC Orchestra in a very attractive reading of the score. The strings, played with restrained vibrato, produced the sort of creamy sound we remember from the Munich Bach Orchestra in the days of Karl Richter, perhaps just a bit more sensuous. This was a gesture towards Respighi’s musical historicism. There were also passages suggestive of Debussy, which Aspinall approached with just a hint of lushness—and that proved effective. Respighi, in a given piece, generally likes to explore all the instrumental groups in the orchestra, and the Triptych is no exception. There was much beautifully phrased and colored wind playing to be enjoyed throughout. Aspinall kept a strong, steady beat throughout the three movements, providing the musicians with plenty of support for the syncopations prevalent in the Primavera and the dance rhythms throughout. The composer was well-served.

Composer Helen Grime
Composer Helen Grime

There followed, after a great many more players filed on stage, the premiere of a TMC/BSO commission, Helen Grime’s Limina (Lat. “thresholds”) another programmatic work, derived from literature rather than pictures. In it she closely follows a chapter in the Norwegian author, Tarjei Vesaas’ novel, The Ice Palace, which describes the feelings of a young girl, as she walks from chamber to chamber inside a frozen waterfall. The music embodies her inner response to the changing spaces around her. At some junctures the limina are clearly defined; at others they overlap or dovetail into one another. One thinks immediately of Bartók’s Bluebeard Castle, which is more theatrical and external in its progress from one door to another. With its large forces, Limina is a complex and many-colored work, but, even on a single hearing, it seems tightly structured and coherent, in spite of its episodic narrative.

At 37, Helen Grime, a protégée of the late Oliver Knussen with close connections to the TMC as a former Fellow, is gathering a strong reputation in the US and has already enjoyed a steady stream of commissions and performances in the UK. I was struck by the first piece of hers I heard at Tanglewood and have followed her work with particular interest. I found Limina thoroughly absorbing and look forward to hearing it again in the BSO’s next season. I should add that it would be hard to improve on the vivid but tightly disciplined performance of the TMC Orchestra under Killian Farrell’s spirited direction.

There is some debate about the extent to which Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is a programmatic work, but its juxtaposition with two overtly programmatic works pretty much compels us to consider it from that angle.1 It is unfortunate that its usual title, the French “Pathétique,” has become inseparable from it. It is a literal carry-over from the Russian title Tchaikovsky gave it, Патетическая симфония (“Pateticheskaya simfoniya”), which, according to Richard Taruskin, means rather “passionate symphony,” as in Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, rather than “a symphony of suffering,” as the French adjective would connote. The English “Pathetic,” which cropped up occasionally in the UK and North America, mostly a long time ago, means yet something else. Tchaikovsky, disappointed in the audience’s bewildered response to the premiere, thought the symphony might go over better with some sort of explanatory subtitle, and his brother Modest suggested the name mentioned above. Unconvinced, Tchaikovsky thought of calling it the “Program” Symphony, stating firmly that he would never divulge the content of the program. (His marketing sense was prescient!) A few days later the composer was dead, and Modest’s title appeared in the program of its next performance, at a memorial concert for his brother. In 19th-century Russia, in the upper circles of society, people generally harbored a tolerant view of homosexuality, undermining the various theories about Tchaikovsky’s death and his final work to be performed before it, including the interpretation of the symphony as a musical suicide note, but it proved fertile soil for gossip. Hence the melodramatic theories which found their way into academic discourse in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

At least one can say that two movements which suggest quite specific surroundings and occasions—a ball and military parade—are bookended by two outer movements which do not refer to any time and place, but are entirely interior in character.

Whether one feels bound to interpret the symphony further or not, Stefan Asbury did brilliant work in dusting off this all-too-familiar work, having every measure make its mark in as focused and expressive a manner as possible. Whatever rubato he used had a reason, and the superb young musicians followed him all the way with total commitment and unwavering energy. The repeated transitional phrases which can be so annoying, even to people who love Tchaikovsky’s music, virtually disappeared under the thrust of his pace in these agitated passages. In the first movement, Asbury allowed the famous introductory phrases to follow their own shapes, interspersed with significant pauses, allowed their full weight. This did not weaken the progression or pulse of the music, however, towards the similarly broken short phrases of the principal subject. The yearning but poised waltz of the second movement, the traditional three beats followed by two more, as if they marked a slight bow from the gentlemen, was impeccably executed, and the players showed they understood the undercurrents beneath the elegant social scene. The march of the third movement was rumbustious and confident to the point of arrogance, with a strong accent on the final note of the theme suggesting all the force of the jack boot striking the pavement. Then back to the pained lament of the conclusion, fading out at the end, most eloquently played.

I left Ozawa Hall feeling that Stefan Asbury had led me to a new discovery of a piece which I always could appreciate—for example, in a superb recent reading by the New York Philharmonic under Semyon Bychkov—but the directness of Asbury’s vision taught me to hear the symphony afresh—not to mention the commitment of the TMC Orchestra—making this the more significant experience.

***

Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Photographer Unknown.
Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Photographer Unknown.

Saturday, 20, 2019, 8:00pm
Kevin Puts, “The Brightness of Light”
Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor

Renée Fleming, soprano*
Rod Gilfry, baritone
Wendall Harrington, video artist

I managed also to hear another programmatic work related to the visual arts, Kevin Puts’ “The Brightness of Light,” for Soprano, Baritone, and Orchestra (2019), a world premiere. Although this version of the piece was a basically BSO commission, it was the Eastman School of Music, which put the project in motion with the purpose of bringing alumni together for the performance of a new work at Lincoln Center, specifically with Renée Fleming and Kevin Puts. The result was a close collaboration between the two of them. Their purpose was to focus on an “iconic American woman,” and Puts found a quotation from Georgia O’Keefe that intrigued him: “My first memory is the brightness of light, light all around.” He learned that O’Keefe had written a great many letters, many to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. As performed in Alice Tully Hall on November 14, 2016, the work focused on O’Keefe, but Fleming took up the idea of expanding it to include an equal representation of Stieglitz. The present version includes a baritone singing the role of Stieglitz and is scored for a large orchestra.

It is well to bear in mind that Kevin Puts devotes much of his energy to opera, and the performance of this song cycle showed his urge towards spectacle—in this case, a slide show of images by and about O’Keefe and Stieglitz, the creation of Wendall Harrington. James Darrah directed the performance. In keeping with the size of the Koussevitzky Music Shed, the screen was very large, and the enormous orchestra confirmed the magnitude of the occasion.

The experience came across more like a multi-media performance than a concert. The imposing screen dwarfed the singers and any attempt at acting the parts of the correspondents they may have made. Photographs by Stieglitz and other photographers and paintings by O’Keefe were often cropped and zoomed (the “Ken Burns effect”), giving them a scale and proportion entirely unlike the originals. They—along with the whole exercise—became monumental—a quality totally alien to either O’Keefe or Stieglitz, whose aesthetics and lives were rooted in intimacy. Stieglitz’s galleries (Note the names of two of them: The Little Galleries, The Intimate Gallery) were small, partly from financial necessity, but also from the aesthetics of his own medium, the photographic print, which in the early 20th century rarely exceeded the size of an object one could hold in one’s hands—and most photographers liked it that way. Stieglitz’s influence on American art was immeasurable, but the kind of modernism he promoted was domestic in scale. Implicitly grand landscapes of the Southwest were prominent in Harrington’s slide show in disproportion to the artist’s fascination with small objects. She might amplify the dimensions of a flower to fill a canvas a yard wide or larger, but she painted skulls and other objects life size, and her landscapes were reduced to domestic proportions. These oxymora of scale form an essential part of her art.

The music was eminently accessible—a case of “Minimalism meets Late Romanticism,” with Puts’ favorite pitched percussion (mostly a vibraphone) a constant presence. I enjoyed listening to it, although it, too, was dominated by the slide show, which must have been devised to follow the complete score, but at some moments I found myself assuming that the music was following the slide sequence. My frequent realization that the chronological sequence of the quotations from the Stieglitz-O’Keefe correspondence often jarred with the slides, which jumped around in time. The texts—lines from the Stieglitz-O’Keefe correspondence which Mr. Puts compiled into a libretto—adumbrated their relationship in an extremely intimate way. So intimate, without being physically explicit, that the letters might well have been burned by one of the correspondents. Although Ms. Fleming was making considerable use of amplification and Mr. Gilfry perhaps occasionally, the words failed to cut through the heavy orchestration more often than not. The words should have been front and center.

The ultimate message was a hagiographical exaltation of O’Keefe. Her memory is recent enough that we remember her as a private person who created art that was intimate in scale and communication, in spite of the extensive publicity she enjoyed through the photographs of Stieglitz and others. (Contrast Mark Rothko, who made intimate art on a large physical scale.) We know so much about these two people of the late 19th (at least Stieglitz) and early 20th centuries, that any one good book about them (and there are many, good and bad) can bring them home to us as ordinary people, living with the same shortcomings, weaknesses, and frustrations any conscious person faces. As human beings, neither of them could by any means be considered larger than life, however powerful their creative powers and however important their achievements. I think a chamber reduction performed without visuals in a space sufficiently intimate to allow the singers to act more effectively, creating a more direct relationship with the audience, would serve O’Keefe and Stieglitz more appropriately.

The BSO, conducted by Nelsons, gave a sweeping, vivid representation of the handsome score.

  1. The best introduction to the much-discussed topic of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and his sudden death is Richard Taruskin’s omnibus review in the New Republic, Vol. 212, Iss. 6,  (Feb 6, 1995): pp. 26ff.

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