An Orchestra for All Seasons: Dvorak’s Faith, Schuller’s Dream, Prokofiev’s Shakespeare

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Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, conducted by Alexandre Bloch, Vlad Agachi, Gunther Schuller, and Miguel Harth-Bedoya, July 8, 2012, Ozawa Hall.

Dvorak, “In Nature’s Realm,” op. 91 (A. Bloch)
Respighi, “The Fountains of Rome” (V. Agachi)
Schuller, “Dreamscape,” (premier led by the composer)
Prokofiev, “Romeo and Juliet,” a compilation of Suites 1 and 2 (M. Harth-Bedoya)

It takes some imagination to knit together the diverse strands of a program in which four conductors lead four works that have no obvious connections to each other. The obvious point is to show the playing abilities of extraordinary young musicians who have had only a few weeks to form themselves into an orchestra. The programmers apparently selected pieces that would challenge even the most seasoned group. It is no surprise, then, that the character of the playing altered radically from one work and conductor to the next.

The reason I love to listen to this orchestra is that the players are not jaded or burnt out; they experience and communicate the thrill of playing great music, especially under inspiring conductors, making up for lack of ultimate refinement and burnished ensemble playing with heartfelt emotion, fierce energy, and in-the-moment alertness. There is a willingness to go all the way with a leader who has the skill to elicit their enthusiasm. But first let’s deal with the less inspired part of the program.

I’ve never been a fan of Respighi’s orchestral spectaculars, so much like Hollywood movies with wide-screen Technicolor, 3-D, and special effects. It is movie music that does not require a movie; if all the hubbub does not get you visually hallucinating, then give up music and try mushrooms. But for the genuinely musical values of these scores to emerge, the conductor needs to keep things under tight rein and make sure that rhythms are perfectly coordinated, that the different sections of the orchestra are properly balanced, and that transitions from one texture and dynamic to the next are seamless. (Toscanini, who led the premiere, showed how to do this.) Little of this actually took place; Vlad Agachi appeared stiff on the podium, his larger gestures seemed to flail, and he unleashed torrents of sound in the loud passages that virtually whited out the colors and melodic shapes. Despite poetic-looking hand gestures, the music lacked a narrative; things just happened, in a kind of out-of-focus manner. The performance needed corrective lenses which would have permitted us to see droplets rather than being subjected to a tsunami-like inundation.

The opening piece was a concert rarity, a tone-poem/overture by Dvorak intended as the first of a triptych (along with “Carnival” and “Othello”) but satisfying as a stand-alone. “In Nature’s Realm” offers the composer’s version of pantheism, a much more direct and gentle affair than its notorious relative, the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony (played by the TMC a year ago). Dvorak’s work is a classic pastorale, beginning, in the same key as Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, with pentatonic wind solos. It is even in a truncated sonata form, hence its generic designation as “overture.” I overheard an eminent musician in the audience complaining that “the piece goes nowhere” which may be true but should not necessarily be a criticism. A pastorale is intrinsically peaceful (despite some harmless passing clouds that provide contrast). Dvorak’s greatness was fully evident in his magically developing melodic textures and warm (non-clichéd) harmonies. This is not the pastorale of the Renaissance madrigalists that reveals the raw passions of the human heart; it is a quasi-religious contemplation of the beauty in the world around us, and few composers are better able to convey this than Dvorak. Such music requires an enactment of the love of that beauty by the performers, which was supplied under the appreciative and clear guidance of Alexandre Bloch, who effectively shaped the phrases through varied color and dynamics, bringing them together into a coherent design. His baton technique was precise and unidiosyncratic, offering encouragement as phrases were built, and providing a warning when the music arrived at the maximum desired intensity. The rapport with his players was obvious, and he was rewarded with beautifully played wind and horn solos and warm string sound.

Gunther Schuller.
Gunther Schuller.

A whole review could easily be devoted to Gunther Schuller who, in his eighty-seventh year, conducted the first performance of one of his most extraordinary compositions. Allowing himself the comfort of slippers and a stool, he at first appeared tired, moving on-stage slowly; but as he found his pace and opened his score, I noticed he was looking at the players section by section to establish contact. Despite very economical conducting motions, he was, from the start, in total control of a very large orchestra performing an exceedingly complex score. “Dreamscape” was described in the program, and later verbally by Schuller onstage, as a three-movement fifteen-minute orchestral work that was dictated, chapter and verse, in a dream, one which the composer was able to recall and transcribe in startling detail. Schuller claims that “the dream” insisted he do things that he had never done before, that he was seized by a force that seemed external to himself. But this was clearly an emanation of Schuller’s individuality, a culminating work that reflects many facets of the composer’s extremely multi-faceted career. I am delighted to say that the most spectacular influence, one I don’t usually associate with Schuller, was that of Charles Ives, clearly felt in the first movement which is a “Scherzo umoristico e curioso.” Ivesian traits and quotes abound, including “Reveille” and march rhythms, jazz, nose-thumbing noises (some more impolite than even Ives was willing to muster), and particularly a multi-level group polyphony presenting a controlled cacophony that adroitly and delightfully realized the movement’s title. Bergson and Freud both understood that humor is an emanation from the unconscious, so perhaps it took a dream to unleash fully Schuller’s subversive side. The irrepressible vitality of this music reminded me not only of some of Elliot Carter’s late orchestral pieces, but also Verdi’s “Falstaff,” all works in which older composers look back with laughter on the human comedy.

The second movement, a nocturne, looked back more specifically on Schuller’s own past and musical preoccupations. It began with a striking set of double-bass tone clusters, reminiscent of Schuller’s composition of 1948, “Quartet” for four double-basses, that brought him to the attention of the composing community at the age of 23. Deep string textures with bass-clarinet along with an abstract but lyrical melodic style reminded me also of the music of Lutoslawski, but there was no clear influence here—simply an ear at home in the orchestra and happy to be inventing wonderful sounds. Toward the end of this movement, mixtures of muted brass and winds spoke to the composer’s life-long love of and work on behalf of the music of Duke Ellington. The last movement seemed the weakest; in a short space, it attempted to portray “Birth—Evolution—Culmination,” a process that could easily have been the subject of an entire Mahler-sized symphony. The “dream’s” demand that it be compressed into a few minutes proved that even the voices in one’s head are not infallible. Absent the constraints of the commission, I hope that Schuller returns to this section and expands it into dimensions more commensurate with its ambitions, or substitutes something dictated by his “own” creative impulses.

Sergei Prokofiev.
Sergei Prokofiev.

The high-point of the program was Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” both in terms of the quality of the musical experience and of the orchestra’s performance. Apart from his operas, this ballet score, composed following his return to the Soviet Union after being abroad for a decade-and-a-half, is Prokofiev’s most ambitious symphonic effort. It surpasses all the composer’s symphonies in its sustained level of inspiration, its economy and dramatic clarity, its grand vision, and its uniformly heartfelt intensity. Despite its troubled history (what truly great work emerged from Stalin’s Russia without a troubled history?), it offers a view of Prokofiev’s true stature as one of our greatest composers. His writing for orchestra may not have had the quick identifiers of his more radical contemporaries like Stravinsky or Bartok; his connections to Romantic traditions are clearer and more evident than in his own earlier work or the scores of his younger colleague Shostakovich. But this score feels like the place where the composer pulled all of his strengths together, and nothing in the realm of human feeling seems beyond its purview: powerful characterization makes this as worthy of its Shakespearean source material as is Verdi’s “Otello” or “Falstaff” (to cite that opera once more). Both I and my concert companion, an actor, felt moved by the performance to go back and reexamine the play; the intensity of the music and its eloquent rendition brought the drama to vivid new life.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya impressed me last summer with his TMC orchestra performance of Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”), a score that can feel all over the place, but which he delivered with a taut line and propulsive drive. The same virtues were present here in music with a much wider dramatic range and (it must be said) a more profound sympathy for fundamental human experiences. Bernstein the conductor came to mind watching Harth-Bedoya on the podium: he is physically totally engaged with each moment of the music in ways that communicate equally to the audience and the orchestra. Needless to say, he conducted from memory. This is not show-boating (something that Bernstein was sometimes guilty of) but a way of completely living within the urgent demands of the music; each piece of body language was immediately translated into a vividly expressive musical gesture by the rapt orchestra which strained every fiber to realize the demands of conductor and score. The result was a maximal performance; if there is a criticism, it would be that the intensity was unrelenting and ultimately exhausting. Whether it was the scampering strings of “Young Juliet” or the deadly stamping of “The Death of Tybalt” (with the maestro literally stamping out the rhythms on the podium) the audience was never permitted to let its attention stray. But I believe we got to experience the full stature of this score, justifying the assignment of Prokofiev to the first rank of orchestral composers.

1 thought on “An Orchestra for All Seasons: Dvorak’s Faith, Schuller’s Dream, Prokofiev’s Shakespeare

  1. Larry. thanks so much. I read the notes About the Author, and knew how little I’ve known about you all these years. I’m glad that came with the package.

    Then I read the first review of the July 8th concert. I was there too. And seeing it through your own perspective was really amazing. Bravo, Larry. I’ve been waiting all my life to read a review like that. The whole concert came back to me just as vividly as when I heard them, and even with more intensity because of what you said.

    I feel so fortunate to be included in your list.

    Keep ’em coming. Fondly,


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