Orchestra Concerts at Tanglewood, a Summer Retrospective

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Stéphane Denève and Lars Vogt. Photo Hilary Scott.
Stéphane Denève and Lars Vogt. Photo Hilary Scott.

Monday, July 22, 8 p.m.
Ozawa Hall
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor

Tanglewood Music Center Conducting Fellows
All-Debussy Program

Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune
Alexandre Bloch , conducting
Stéphane Denève conducting
Danses sacrées et profanes
Annabelle Taubl, harp
Stilian Kirov conducting
La Mer
Stéphane Denève conducting

Friday, August 2, 8:30 p.m.
The Serge and Olga Koussevitzky Memorial Concert
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Lars Vogt, piano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
Strauss – Death and Transfiguration
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 4
Poulenc – Stabat Mater, for soprano, chorus, and orchestra

Saturday, August 3, 8:30 p.m.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Lang Lang, piano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor

Ravel – Pavane for a Dead Princess
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 1
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé (complete)

Friday, August 23, 8:30 p.m.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Poga, conductor*
Peter Serkin, piano

Prokofiev – Classical Symphony
Stravinsky – Concerto for Piano and Winds
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7

Sunday, August 25, 2:30 p.m. Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor

Erin Wall, soprano
Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano
Joseph Kaiser, tenor
John Relyea, bass-baritone

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9

I’d have to affect an especially severe attitude to deny that this was a rewarding summer at Tanglewood, although the token single program by a period instrument group, which is always well-attended and in fact important to Tanglewood, if the festival is to represent music-making as it is today, was missing, and I found rather little to attract me into the Music Shed. The post-Levine formula of revered white-haired visitors is wearing thin, and now that a music director has been appointed, there is no longer the titillation of a possible  music director emerging from one of the younger guest conductors. The white heads will carry on through the next seasons at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, until Andris Nelsons, the Music Director Designate, takes over full-time…if that actually happens, we begin to wonder. Nelsons is as well-known in Boston now for his cancellations as his appearances. Nelsons’ cancellation of his Tanglewood Verdi Requiem, due to a concussion resulting from a collision with a door at his home near Bayreuth, is his second. The first, announced less than a month before the concert, was occasioned by the expected birth of a child in conflict with the engagement. Yes, as far as the future music director of the orchestra goes, this was a summer of head-scratching.

Having heard Nelsons’ magnificent Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 2010, I’ve been more enthusiastic about his appointment than my colleagues, Charles Warren and Lloyd Schwartz. Nelsons’ recovery was sufficiently rapid for him to lead the Festspielorchester in Lohengrin once again a week or so after his cancelled commitment at Tanglewood, while his wife, Kristine Opolais, carried on to sing in said performance of Verdi Requiem and to fill in for her ailing husband in glad-handing BSO trustees and donors, as scheduled. I have no doubt that Andris Nelsons, now 35, is a brilliant opera conductor, but one may well question whether he has the experience to fill the educational requirements of the Tanglewood Music Center or the knowledge of contemporary music, above all, in the US, to show himself as a leader in the commissioning of new works. Both of these jobs have been crucial since Koussevitzky’s day and the founding of the TMC. James Levine excelled in both capacities. If Levine’s commissions seemed conservative, one cannot deny the importance of Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Yehudi Wyner in American music, and, in particular, the context of the BSO. Even more disquieting is the fact that Nelsons has not yet achieved a real triumph with the orchestra—one of those occasions when the members of the orchestra, the public, and the critics joined in harmonious enthusiasm. Even the failures among BSO Music Directors, Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa, had some impressive performances and deep connections with former Music Directors to recommend them. Nelsons made a favorable, if not overwhelming impression filling in for an ailing Levine at Carnegie Hall, and similarly mixed receptions in his later appearances with the orchestra. I have only heard his Tanglewood program with Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Brahms’ Second Symphony. Larry Wallach and Charles Warren have commented on that concert already. In my opinion, Nelsons’ “Romantic” Stravinsky didn’t convince, but the Brahms appealed, because it lent a heuristic quality to a symphony which has received too many performances, especially obtuse, formulaic ones, in recent years. Still, if was by no means a great performance.

Schwartz and Warren believe that the BSO would have been better served by Vladimir Jurowski, who has generated some electricity with the orchestra in recent years. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend those concerts, and I’ve never heard Jurowski conduct live at all, so I cannot offer an opinion. However I do have my own favorite for an alternative music director, and he is Stéphane Denève. At 42, he is entering his full maturity as a conductor. He is a masterful technician, and French to boot, having shown a deep understanding of the French repertoire so close to the BSO’s historical core. His witty, Beechamesque pre-concert talks in excellent English show him to be a charming educator of the public and a congenial personality to American audiences, and the TMC concert I am about to discuss shows him to be a superb educator of musicians. Early on, before his health problems became apparent once again, Riccardo Chailly seemed the perfect man for the job. Stéphane Denève is close to it. Perhaps in this era of easily broken contracts, Nelsons may possibly back out of the job, which may well be to big for him. In that case let’s hope the BSO will go for Denève, I say. Another possibility is the supremely intelligent and experienced Jonas Alber, whose enthusiasm for contemporary music has inspired fresh and exciting rethinkings of the classics.

What a marvellous idea, to create a program, consisting entirely of works by Debussy! Not many pianists dare this, much less conductors. Even if a familiar work, like La Mer, is part of it, an evening’s immersion in Debussy is sure to transform one’s relationship to this great composer, as well as one’s listening habits.

The concert began with an eloquent, broadly paced reading of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune under Alexandre Bloch, a returning TMC Conducting Fellow, who has accomplished great things over the past two years. The pacing, shaping of melody, and sonorities were magnificent in this deeply absorbing performance. It was also exceptionally clear in terms of structure and the integrity of the different sections of the narrative. M. Bloch seems especially appreciated by the Fellows in the orchestra, and they gave him their best. Debussy wrote the Prélude as a tone poem for performance in concert at the request of the author of the poem, Stéphane Mallarmé, himself. Independently, in 1912, Nijinsky choregraphed the piece for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Diaghilev commissioned Jeux as a ballet around the same time, and it premiered at the Ballets Russes in May 1913.

Stéphane Denève, who, as he mentioned in his genial introductory talk, had been working with the TMC Fellows intensively on Debussy over the past month, took over the podium for Jeux. Diaghilev wrote the scenario for Jeux after an erotic fantasy of his own about three young men playing tennis at dusk. For the public, he changed two of them to girls, as their hide-and-seek in the semi-darkness and their search for a lost tennis ball climaxed in a three-way kiss. A complex work of subtle colors and rhythms, Jeux has enjoyed a livelier following in the concert hall than as a ballet. Denève elicited a robust sound from the players, supported by a strong rhythmic pulse, the changes in meter always markedly defined. In the clearly differentiated colors and lines, the Fellows’ intense study with the maestro produced a vivid picture of Debussy’s musical imaginings.

The second half of the concert began with Danses, one of which is sacred and the other profane, which Debussy wrote in the spring of 1904 on commission of the piano maker Pleyel, as a demonstration piece for their new chromatic harp, a cross-strung instrument with 76 strings. Although the firm continued to manufacture the instrument up to 1930, it never caught on. Debussy sagely avoided going too deeply into the specialized features of the chromatic harp, and it was easily arranged for the common harp, and that is how it is almost always played today. In Debussy’s original version the chromatic harp was accompanied by a string quartet and a double bass. Debussy also prepared a version for string orchestra, which we heard in Ozawa Hall. Danses is an exceptionally sophisticated example of musique antique—an oblique imitation of Graeco-Roman music, or how Debussy imagined it to have been, here intended to please the most refined audiences, readers of the Chansons de Bilitis, a collection of Sapphic poetry by his friend, Pierre Louÿs. The TMC Fellow who conducted, Stilian Kirov, showed confident control of the orchestra and was sensitive to both the sensuous, atmospheric character of the Danse sacrée and the more energetic nature of the Danse profane. The playing of the harpist, however, Annabelle Taubl, was truly astonishing in its virtuosity, vast range of tonal color, and sensitivity to Debussy’s many nuances of phrasing and tone. This was not lost on the audience, who, at the conclusion of the music, picked their jaws off the floor and applauded wildly. Ms. Taubl deserves recognition as a major figure in the harp world.

The program concluded with an equally unforgettable performance of La Mer. This was an energetic, full-bodied interpretation in the spirit of Pierre Boulez’s historic recording of the work, but richer in sonority and more colored. The various sections were clearly demarcated; rhythms were strong; textures were clear. This was an exploratory performance, which delved into the depths of the score. If this had a didactic origin in Stéphane Denève’s role as a teacher, it proved a revelation for the listener. There were no clichés in his approach to a work which is so familiar to orchestras and their audiences, that both playing and listening can go on autopilot. Denève’s conducting reminded me very much of James Levine’s in his unflagging attention to all the players in the orchestra, not only the front desks, and his effort to make every musician play in an engaged, fully conscious way. If one occasionally felt that what was missing from this performance was the last degree of tonal refinement attainable by a fully mature orchestra like the Boston Symphony itself, one realized on reflection that this was only a stylistic feature familiar in traditional, less considered performances.

Maestro Denève conducted the Boston Symphony in the Shed over a week later, in a program consisting of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, and Francis Poulenc’s rarely heard Stabat Mater. At one point, later in the program, because this was one of the special programs which include a preliminary address from a member of the orchestra—a rather peculiar one, I might add—Denève explained his program and its central item, the sublime choral work by Poulenc. He told us that the program had a theme involving the various attitudes towards death expressed in the three works. This is obvious in Strauss’ early tone poem and the Stabat Mater, which focuses on Mary at the foot of the cross, and most people who read program notes are familiar with the notion that some have thought that there may be some kind of Orpheus and Eurydice narrative in the second movement of Beethoven’s concerto and perhaps in the outer movements as well. Denève stated most emphatically that he was a firm believer in this theory, which originated with Adolf Bernhard Marx in 1830. Although the thought appears at various points in between, it came into the musicological limelight once again in the writings of an American professor, Owen Jander, who expanded it into extensive and literal detail, arousing controversy in many quarters. Marx and Jander’s conceit seems to have been taken up with enthusiasm by musicians above all, so Denève’s embrace of it should come as no surprise, especially since he is a countryman of Berlioz. As his authority he cited Liszt, an august name harder to argue with than Marx or Jander. In general I remain sceptical, although I don’t think that it is totally absurd that Beethoven may have expected a passing allusive ghost in the minds of his audience. If there was a program, Beethoven usually spelled it out in his scores. This is not the place to go into this subtle aspect of how people listen to music—perhaps more another time—or perhaps not. I’ve had the privilege of enjoying this great work since my early teens, and I’ve never felt the need for a program behind the music. For me, it rather detracts from Beethoven’s musical conceptions.

The Strauss was large in scale, even monumental, and Denève exploited the structure to delve into the moods of the different sections and make them present to the audience, like the chapters of a novel, rather than a novella—and Death and Transfiguration, which is a not a long work, is often taken as a short story, or a scene from a play!

Beethoven’s Fourth could not have been a more fulfilling performance. Broad in tempo and with every detail cherished, its memory will linger. Lars Vogt was the soloist. His “Emperor” at Tanglewood a few years back won’t be forgotten either. He favors a brilliant, crystalline tone in the higher registers, with especially clear articulation, and this reminds me somewhat of Gieseking later in his career. His work with this left hand his equally clear, but balanced the treble with an engaging warmth. This is appealing to begin with, but his probing interpretation of the concerto, supported by Denève with the closest sympathy, made for a great performance. The audience’s cheers after the first movement, rather than annoying, seemed appropriately in the spirit of nineteenth century German audiences, who customarily applauded between movements. This meant, of course, that our concentration was broken before the beginning of the disputed second movement. It is true that Vogt and Denève played the programmatic shtick to the hilt, but the beauty and perception of their musical work far outweighed the forced quality this brought to the music. Jander, the modern day proponent of the theory, claimed that the quality of a performance rose according to the executants’ adherence to his views. In this case, I’d contradict him, but the exaggeration did not prove fatal. The finale was magnificent from the whole to every detail, with Orpheus’ dismembered parts long thrown to the winds!

After the intermission, Stéphane Denève fulfilled a time-honored tradition with the BSO, one maintained by all their Music Directors. He presented an under-recognized masterpiece of twentieth-century French music to BSO audiences for only the third time since it was written in 1950-51—and a premiere at Tanglewood. His warm sympathy for Poulenc and his writing presented it in the best possible light—and honestly so, I deeply believe. The poise and polish Poulenc developed with the ever-so-fashionable Les Six in the 1920s, gave him a Mozartian eloquence, as well as musical etiquette, and, above all, a strong foundation. After hearing the work so sensitively expressed by Denève, the BSO, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, whose musicality and diction were entirely equal to his needs, Poulenc’s Stabat Mater was a welcome discovery for me, and the performance should rank among the BSO’s great moments. I should at that the British soprano Lucy Crowe was splendid. She has an exceptionally cohesive voice, part of which is an unusual covered quality in her upper registers, which was, once one got used to it, very pleasing. Her sensitive singing of her sections was entirely in the spirit of Poulenc’s honest piety and heartfelt devotion.

Stéphane Denève fulfilled in these two concerts most of the many desiderata of a great Music Director in the tradition of Munch and Levine. I’ll say no more.

Charles Dutoit carried on in a similar vein, at least as far as the combination of Beethoven with French composers goes, in a program which began with Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, continued with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and concluded with a performance of Ravel’s complete score for Daphnis et Chloé. The Pavane, the program said, was performed in memory of Henri Dutilleux, who died over a month before. Why not perform a work by Dutilleux, instead of this overplayed filler? Wasn’t the BSO’s laziness a bit disrespectful to this important composer? In any case the performance was not less than one would expect from Charles Dutoit.

Lang Lang was the soloist in the Beethoven. While he performed in his familiar way, Maestro Dutoit gave an immaculately articulated, cultivated performance of the score, reminding us that what Lang Lang was doing on the stage was somehow related to a piece written by Beethoven. One can only wish people like Lang Lang would just go away.

The complete Daphnis et Chloé has become something of a warhorse. The BSO will play it again early in the new year. Several major conductors programmed and recorded the score recently, including James Levine—most splendidly—and fortunately the performance is available from the BSO site as a download or CD. Dutoit’s reading was entirely on this Olympian level, and enriched by the way he never lost sight of the fact that it is a stage work, with a story and contrasting dramatic scenes. Dutoit’s combination of drama and color was thrilling, and just what the work needs. It’s not a symphony, after all, or even a tone poem, but yet another Diaghilev commission for his Ballets Russes (1909). Needless to say I deeply regretted having to miss Dutoit’s Sacre du Printemps, which must have been another peak of a seemingly routine, but in fact rather rich season.

Another high point was the Tanglewood debut of the BSO’s new Assistant Conductor, Andris Poga. I was drawn to the concert because, following the Bard Music Festival, I still thirsted for more Stravinsky—a sign of how affected I was by the festival—of which more in another article. The thought of Peter Serkin playing the Concerto for Piano and Winds was irresistible. I was less excited by the prospect of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, which may not be as overplayed today as it once was, but still, as the Bard Festival of 2008 showed us, Prokofiev’s best-known works misrepresent him, and he wrote so many more interesting and better, even great music, which is rarely played. Poulenc’s Sinfonietta was originally scheduled for this slot. Too bad…Still the Classical Symphony had a logical and enlightening place in a program with the Stravinsky Concerto and Beethoven’s Seventh, and Poga’s reading was so elegant and enthusiastic that it made a winning case for this slight work. (It is intriguing to think of the many different works the Concerto for Piano and Winds can resonate. Herbert Blomstedt programmed it in Paris a few years ago to introduce Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, the hymn-like brass chords that introduce each work. It also provided a Parisian frame for an Austrian work rarely heard in the city.)

It was clear how much Peter Serkin loves this work, which he played only a week before with the Bard Conservatory Orchestra under Leon Botstein—sadly I couldn’t attend. We had an especially good view of Serkin’s face, as he joyfully executed Stravinsky’s big handfuls of notes and jazzy syncopations. In a way, his approach had the potential of becoming an “revisionist” interpretation, like Andris Nelsons’ Symphony of Psalms, because Serkin’s tempi were especially deliberate. However, unlike Nelsons, he didn’t use the slow tempi to create a mood open to feeling, but to lay bare all the splendid details of Stravinsky’s construction, from its Bachian fabric to its syncopated treatments, which venture further into jazz rhythms. All was lovingly cared for…and understood! Feeling ruled in the slow movement, in which Stravinsky adopted a more Romantic language, as astringently curtailed as it is. I believe that Stravinsky in this slow movement took the overt “classicism” of the first movement, manifested in the form of an hommage to a Baroque composer, who—then more than now—was regarded as a founder or precursor of classicism, to a new creative level. The slow movement is truly Stravinsky’s classicism without any kind of derivation. The final movement was, like the first movement, deliberate in tempo and rich in detail. Especially delicious was Serkin’s playing of the tonally ambiguous second section. The rhythmically irregular chords in the final section, as the tempo slows, before the rollicking final bars, was a particular Serkin delicacy, and no one else could have played it as he did.

The ultimate epiphany, however, appeared in Andris Poga’s exciting and meticulously thought-out Beethoven Seventh. The alert and energetic playing of the orchestra—strings reduced to classical proportions—made it clear that Poga had won their respect and was able to communicate his desires down to the smallest detail. He did in fact lead the orchestra with a rock-solid stick technique that made everything—pace, phrasing, and balance—absolutely clear. In such a young conductor, one might expect to encounter and forgive imitations of great recorded forbears, as we did with the young Barenboim and Levine. There was nothing of that here. It was all between Poga and the orchestra. t wasn’t a matter of a conductor’s mannerisms or interpretation, but simply the straightforward realization of a seminal score in the most sympathetic and musical way possible.

I have found over the years that Beethoven’s Seventh is especially difficult to bring off. Perhaps it was Toscanini’s bad influence that encouraged conductors to rush the music and to push it ahead of its measure like wild horse on the loose. I’ve found the most satisfactory performances to be the well-grounded ones, which respect the music’s rhythmic foundations. Any of Klemperer’s performances, live or studio, are close to ideal. Furtwängler excelled in the work as well, establishing a firm pulse at the beginning which remained coherent as he speeded up over the course of the fast movements. Erich Kleiber also mastered it well. Poga’s reading was extraordinary in that he didn’t seem concerned with shoring up ballast. He preserved the shape of Beethoven’s score by keeping a steady, slightly broad tempo, which gave him room for flexibility. Above all, he let the musicians of the orchestra converse, and this exchange of phrases set up new game, different from what we’re used to hearing.

The slow introduction to the first movement set things in motion with a dignified, but not ponderous pace. Beethoven suggested the slow introductions of Handel and Bach without any literal hommage, for example in dotted rhythms. This was a good a match for the Stravinsky as the Bruckner Fifth was in Paris—but in a different way.

The Allegretto opened with clearly defined rhythms at an appropriate tempo—closer to Allegretto than Andante, let’s say. The transformations that followed were all the more eloquent for the chamber orchestra clarity of the textures. The exquisite wind playing of the second section involved us in its special quality without resorting to a slowing of the tempo. The forward movement prevailed. Poga did pull the movement back a bit for the fugato section, in order to support the counterpoint with an even more steady foundation. This passed into the broad lyrical wind phrases, before the music became more fragmented, returning to the transformation of the opening statement of the theme.

There was no rushing in the Scherzo, but a concentration on detail, and the dialogue among the different sections of the orchestra. The Boston winds excelled in this in the trio. Pianissimi were true pianissimi, well differentiated from the larger body of the orchestra in texture and color. The tempo became quite broad as the second occurrence of the trio led into the final part of the Scherzo proper. The violin trills at the end were meaty and satisfying. The finale followed all’attacca, steadily, giving winds and strings space to sound their best. Poga’s special feeling for the timbre of strings in tutti and separate sections really blossomed here. The clipped dotted notes in the middle “development” section might have seemed excessive to some, but they had panache and made their point. The build-up to the final chords was perfectly managed in pace and balance, and this fine judgment led to all the excitement one could have hoped for in the final bars.

The audience went wild, appropriately so. In this young Latvian, Andris Poga, the BSO has both a star and a solid musician. I certainly won’t miss his return to the podium at Symphony Hall in January.

Bernard Haitink conducted the traditional Beethoven Ninth to bring the classical part of Tanglewood to a close. I have always liked Haitink’s Beethoven and his cool control of the Ninth in particular. I thought this the best of the Ninths I’ve heard at Tanglewood, beautifully played and balanced, and the vocal quartet (Erin Wall, Tamara Mumford, Joseph Kaiser, John Relyea)—usually a spotty crew at Tanglewood—were outstanding, one of the most solid and elegant I have heard anywhere. Tanglewood 2013 concluded without undue ecstasy, but with superb musicianship, and the audience was not slow to recognize the quality of what they had heard.

These concerts were all happy stories with happy conclusions—and messages for the future. Don’t miss any of the concerts under Stéphane Denève or Andris Poga. And let’s hope that Andris Nelsons makes it to Boston this month and thrills the audience with his Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms Third—a notoriously treacherous work to perform. His concert performance of Strauss’ Salome will be the true test in January.

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