These last weeks there was French music everywhere. An excellent program of alternating Debussy and Messiaen songs at Tanglewood with the Tanglewood Fellows, William Bolcom and Joan Morris at Mohawk Trail Concerts, and a Bastille Day performance of Tartuffe the Imposter at Shakespeare and Company. A lot of ink has been spilled describing, defining, perhaps destroying what is called “French style.” Bad pedagogy of this sort tries to get you to do something less than what you would normally do with a phrase if it were not French music. There is much pontificating about accuracy in the pronouncing of the language. French singers that I have known seem much more concerned with the flow of the language and the connectedness of it. Because a piece of music is easy on the ear does not mean it is less affecting for the heart. All of the performances listed above showed me that this is true. They followed what I would call the “Boulez” idea—how he said that French music is strong, in Debussy’s case, frequently violent—not some kind of shaded, half-felt thing. Very possibly the best exemplar of this is Joan Morris, ably partnered at the piano by her husband William Bolcom. Mr. Bolcom studied with Darius Milhaud, and Ms. Morris sang some Milhaud songs in the same way that she sang old American songs, some from Tin Pan Alley. What was that way? It was buoyancy, it was poignancy; she took the songs seriously, even if they were jaunty. She is an excellent example of a singer who makes no arrogant distinction between a great classical song and a great popular song. There is nothing “artsy” about her French, or her singing. It just comes out like a terrific speech which can, at a moment’s notice, move us deeply. This would be my model for excellent Gallic music-making.
Several Vocal Fellows and their pianists gave an ingenious recital which combined songs of Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen. Every one of the young singers participating was fully professional and engaged. Each had prepared her own translations. Much of this program was not the usual Debussy. In particular there were wonderful songs from the early cycle “Recueil Vasnier”. Soprano Ilana Zarankin sang with exceptional clarity in this group. Sharon Harms, soprano, sang music of both composers using the power in her voice only when she should have—not as something laid on generally. She had a wonderful grasp of the shape of each song; she had ideas. There was something there when she finished singing.
Shakespeare and Company’s Tartuffe the Imposter, performed in the Rose Footprint Theatre, was splendidly lively and irreverent. Douglas Seldin was not a behind-the-scenes fox-like Tartuffe, but an ebullient bloviater who dominated every scene he was in. He fooled poor Orgon by force not stealth. As a matter of fact, everything about the production was large and resonant. It spilled off the stage. Caitlin Kraft’s Elmire was especially impressive in the under-the-table scene because she kept so much in reserve and made it shapely. It was about 95 degrees the day we went, and everyone stayed with it happily. It made you feel its energy. The children in the audience loved it.
There have been blazing performances by the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows orchestra these past weeks. Miguel Harth-Bedoya was a kind of Villella on the podium, a dancer of power and ease. I was reminded of Eduard Villella, whose “Prodigal Son” I saw a number of times because both he and Maestro Harth-Bedoya brought out the strength and edge of the music and did not make it the enemy of beauty. The response from the young players had such immediacy and directness– one sees there a connection between conductor and players that is almost never seen in other venues. Their playing of music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was full of fire. Like so much Russian music, its underpinning is a kind of heavy destiny that is inescapable. Only Prokofiev makes it blaze, not smoulder. I have never felt its power so keenly as in this performance.
A week later, conducting fellow Alexander Bloch made the often intractable “Unfinished” Symphony of Franz Schubert his own. He did not hurry; even the terror in the piece was lyrical. His was a very wise and heard performance. Following intermission, Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger led an absolutely rip-snorting performance of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Julia Noone played the violin solo to perfection. (From the first balcony, it was very sweet to see Joseph Silverstein sitting below in the audience, fingering the passages of the solo while Ms. Noone played, with a big smile on his face—this is what Tanglewood is to me.) Yes, the last chords were a bit unstable, but aren’t they always? Maybe they should be. The energy of the young orchestra and the young conductor were impossible to resist.
This past Monday’s concert was perhaps the highlight. Rarely have I heard a group of works that require more concentration from players and conductor. There was absolutely no chance to coast in these works, and the young players admirably met the challenge. I heard Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England as a beautiful piece, full of delicacies, not just a blaster. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was ravishing. Angela Limoncelli, playing English horn and oboe solos in Ives and Stravinsky, was a vocal kind of player who made you listen. Emanuel Ax performed the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with great aplomb, and Ken-David Masur was absolutely on top of the complex score. It is not a heavy work, but it is a wandering one. Listening to this concerto made me understand why Britten’s operas work so well. They command the time and make a world. For me this piece did neither, even given the excellence of the playing. Finally, Stravinsky’s Petrushka was a singular delight. This is a work that one must hear live. The orchestration itself is a thing of wonder. New Fromm Player, Alexander Bernstein, played his difficult piano part with assurance, virtuosity, and expression. There were too many excellent solos to credit everyone, but Matthew Roitstein, flute, and Stuart Stephenson, trumpet, gave us solos that were not only technically excellent, but also dramatic. I cannot praise enough the detailed concentration of these Fellows on every bar of this piece. They made it live. Stefan Asbury, who conducted the Ives and the Stravinsky, has shown repeatedly not only his skill, but also his power to inspire. This was one of the best concerts I have heard this summer.
For a different view of this concert by Larry Wallach, click here.