Conductor Antonio Pappano led the young players of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States in a spectacular performance of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony on August 1st in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood. The Alpine Symphony is well-known to be one of the most difficult orchestral pieces in the symphonic repertoire. To watch the intensity of these instrumentalists was almost as wonderful as hearing them. The hall vibrated with exuberance as well as tenderness. Conductor Antonio Pappano has every right to be proud of this superb young group of players.
The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.
As Pierre Boulez’s “house pianist” at Ensemble Intercontemporain for many years, Pierre-Laurent Aimard could have been expected to be very brainy, in command of the most complex and challenging modern scores, with an artistic temperament on the cool side, eschewing virtuosic display and temperament. His deep insight into contemporary music has been amply demonstrated in his many past Tanglewood appearances, but may give the impression that he is a specialist in this area. This would be mistaken. As demonstrated in recordings and in these concerts, his virtues as a musician benefit a wide-ranging repertory, including (in his solo recital) the baroque Louis-Claude Daquin, the romantic Robert Schumann, and the earlier 20th century Maurice Ravel.
The excellent Stephane Denève chose two works of Hector Berlioz for his TMCO concert. Wholly remarkable was a performance of Les Nuits d’Été. The maestro gave these songs a sound I’ve never heard before. It was ravishingly quiet to begin with, not unlike the nearly silent playing Simon Rattle can achieve in his Mahler performances. It was like something in the air. Even more unforgettable was the coaching he had done with the young singers, each a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center. So diaphanous was the orchestral environment for each of the songs, the young voices could merely whisper and be heard. “Au Cimitière” in particular benefitted from this. Sara Lemesh said the words as much as she spoke them.
The paradox of Berlioz is that he is both quintessentially of the nineteenth-century and in many ways far ahead of his time. Grandiose, self-absorbed, at home in both Heaven and Hell (well, perhaps a bit more in Hell), operating on the largest temporal and spatial canvases, bringing together mammoth forces to speak in one voice; but also episodic and arbitrary in construction, harmonically idiosyncratic and technically suspect, bombastic, addicted to overwhelming sound spectaculars, in short, in questionable taste; in these ways he epitomizes Romanticism. All of these characteristics of his music have been noticed and pondered in attempts to come up with an evaluation of this unavoidable maverick, a figure whose closest counterpart in his own time might be Mussorgsky, or in ours, Charles Ives. Today, with post-modernism, mash-ups, the valuing of discontinuity and fragmentary statements, Berlioz rides high. He is seen as a predecessor to the liberation of tone color as an independent element of construction, as in the music of Debussy. In the past, when polished craftsmanship and solid structure were primary virtues, critics often looked askance at Berlioz’s bulky, generically ambiguous compositions. Today, we recognize the uniqueness of his vision.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is, like his friend Franz Liszt, an exemplary subject for the Bard Summer Music Festival: his world was large, and he was vitally connected with it. He was recognized as an important composer—the most important French composer—through most of his maturity. He studied with important teachers. He had many friends, many enemies, and many students. His musical output was encyclopaedic. Uncharacteristically for a French composer, he wrote in virtually every form there was to write in. His compositions are in many cases linked to prominent contemporary issues in politics, the arts, and science. He prepared an historical edition of the works of Rameau and revived works by Lully and Charpentier.
This fascinating and varied program, each piece using equally colorful but very different orchestras and very different forms and structures, shows us some of the breadth of the Sydney Symphony. Their style is nimble enough to express itself in multifarious ways and Ashkenazy’s style and approach to symphonic music is well suited to the three pieces. To mark the occasion of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary, they have done something special in commissioning themselves a new piece by way of an open competition. Elliott Gyger’s entry was chosen, and though only alloted a short amount of time to fit into this larger program of more familiar pieces, it does rather expand under the intensity of its short broken up motifs and its varied colors, sounds and textures, qualities Ashkenazy, at least as a conductor, seems to relish. The piece’s title refers to the SSO’s origin as a radio orchestra formed along with the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 1932. Gyger says he used an ensemble of 17 instruments, the same in the original 1932 radio orchestra, which for his “dialogue” are spread through the larger orchestra: three violins, viola, cello, bass, two each of trombones, trumpets and clarinets, a horn, sousaphone, piccolo, piano and percussion.
Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing centers on Hero and Claudio, two young lovers who are thrown into disarray by a villain who leads Claudio to believe that Hero has betrayed him. There is a lot of marvelous business with the local constable, Dogberry, and his friends, who disrupt the villain and save the day. And then there is a parallel lovers’ story involving Beatrice and Benedict, two highly clever people who like to spar with each other, seeming to hate each other, and yet are eventually brought to realize that they like each other tremendously and wish to be together. The brilliant dialogue of this pair and the course of their development crucially influenced Jane Austen in her depiction of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and her depiction of other prickly remarkable couples who are really meant for each other, and such depictions in later fiction and drama, including classic Hollywood films such as The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and The Awful Truth (Cary Grant in every case, plus Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Irene Dunne, respectively).