A Week of Contrasts at Tanglewood: Two Orchestras, Two Pianists

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Seiji Ozawa Hall. Photo © 2012 Michael Miller.
Seiji Ozawa Hall. Photo © 2012 Michael Miller. 

Sunday, July 5
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Ozawa Hall

Britten – Young Person’s Guide to the Orchesta (Variations on a Theme of Purcell) narrated by Mark Morris, conducted by Ruth Reinhardt
Brahms – Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a, conducted by Marzena Diakun
John Williams – A Walk Down West Street
Sibelius – Symphony no. 5, Op. 82

Wednesday, July 8
Leon Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson, pianists, Ozawa Hall
J. S. Bach, arr. Petri – “Sheep may safely graze” from Cantata no. 208
Debussy – “La puerta del vino” from Préludes, Book II
Debussy – “Claire de lune” from Suite bergamasque
Brahms – Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52a
Schubert – Fantasy in F minor, D. 940
Ravel, arr. Garban  – La Valse

Friday, July 10
Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève, Cameron Carpenter, organ soloist
Barber – Adagio for Strings
Poulenc – Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani
Saint-Saëns – Symphony no. 3 in C minor, “Organ Symphony” Op. 78

The week from Sunday July 5 to Friday July 10 at Tanglewood afforded the opportunity to compare one of the world’s great orchestras (the BSO), most of whose members have honed their style and sense of ensemble over many years, to an ad hoc group of very talented young pre- or new-professional players who have been cobbled together into an orchestra in a few days. Regular readers know my inclination toward such ensembles; I seek out the TMC Orchestra concerts more regularly than I do those of the BSO, and last summer’s appearance of the National Youth Orchestra was a highlight of the season.

Another set of comparisons was suggested by the solo/duet recital by Leon Fleisher and his pianist-partner Katherine Jacobson: Fleisher’s current two-handed playing at age 86 versus at age 34; his solo playing today versus the duet combination; and performance of music with modest technical demands (Brahms, Schubert) versus that of virtuoso demands (Ravel).

While the TMC orchestra has a great track record in demanding literature (in last summer’s Symphonie fantastique under Stéphane Denève or the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with Emmanuel Ax and Ken-David Masur of a few years back they outplayed all the competition), their concert last week displayed both strengths and weaknesses. The first half of the program, under Conducting Fellows, displayed the strengths of the players and their conductors. The Britten and Brahms were each performed with a sound and style that appropriately reflected the personalities of the compositions. The Britten, under the direction of Ruth Reinhardt from Germany, and freighted with a superfluous rendition of the original didactic narration delivered by Mark Morris (who happened to be on hand), was played with brilliant precision, the individual instrumentalists tearing into their showy parts with the kind of relish that makes this orchestra so reliably exciting. The Brahms, in contrast, was performed with great warmth and a flexible pulse under the impressive Marzena Diakun from Poland, whose nuanced and detailed conception of every section emerged with clarity and beauty of sound. It can therefore be counted as a strength of the orchestra that they proved so adaptable to the contrasting stylistic demands with which they were faced, which permitted their sound to be shaped by the conductors in such cogent ways.

Under the baton of Stefan Asbury, the mentor-in-charge, they dispatched a newly commissioned work by John Williams (“A Walk Down West Street”), a kind of five-minute mini-concerto for orchestra that made no lasting impression, and proceeded to tackle the most formidable challenge of the evening, the Fifth Symphony of Sibelius. Here the ad hoc nature of the ensemble began to emerge. This towering masterpiece demands the most skillful orchestral art imaginable: the scoring is heavily demanding on the players individually and, most especially, as a group. For the first time I can recall, I found myself cutting this orchestra a lot of slack as I listened; it seemed that Asbury was mostly intent on achieving a rousing and energetic performance and allowed details and balances to be blurred. As a result, it periodically fell into incoherence as the orchestral textures became muddy and the leading parts were overwhelmed by the secondary ones. Sibelius labored at this symphony for four years, putting it through several major overhauls before he was completely satisfied with it. Part of Sibelius’s originality, even modernity, resides in his creating a kind of intermittent, deliberate ambiguity of texture and rhythm that must be rendered with total precision so that the emergence of significant ideas occurs how and when they need to within the structure. The coherence of the overall structure (a single span of musical thought) depends on this taking place so that the evolution of the melodic material is always perceptible. The structural logic of the music becomes apparent and compelling in a great performance, and the work demands nothing less. I can’t imagine how a group of 100 (±) players working together for less than a week could have pulled off such a feat. What they did achieve was a series of exciting moments and some lovely textures and solos which were sufficient to earn an ovation from the impressed audience, but the performance was a reminder of what makes an orchestra like the BSO so great: the refined shaping of sound and structure that can be achieved under a conductor of vision. Such a performance was offered by Esa-Pekka Salonen twenty-nine years ago in his BSO debut, where he and the orchestra achieved a perfect balance between translucent textures and cogent forward motion, revealing the first movement’s arc of growing energy and direction from first note to last, and certifying the immense stature of this work as a whole.

A demonstration of symphonic excellence was offered by the BSO the following Friday under Maestro Denève. The first half of the program consisted of a shotgun wedding between Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, played without interruption. The pairing was interesting if not totally convincing as a programming coup. The strings under Denève rendered the Barber as a quiet meditation; slower than usual, and flexible in tempo (it was allowed ample time to breathe), the climactic phrases remained internalized and eloquent rather than dramatic, and formed the high point of a smooth arc rather than a histrionic outburst. This worked to effectively highlight the contrast between the two works, since, after the hushed close of the first, the meditative silence (absent applause) was shattered by the “subito fortissimo” organ chord that launched the propulsive and operatic concerto. The soloist was Cameron Carpenter whose attention-grabbing persona (mohawk haircut, expansive repertory, and preference for a digital instrument) did not interfere with an effective rendition of the solo part, the demands of which are rather straight-forward. The electronic “traveling” instrument, which has practical advantages for a venue lacking a pipe organ, proved to sound like what it was: a powerful digital simulator, capable of mimicking the full range of organ colors and timbres. The only problem is that it does not fully reproduce the experience of hearing sound waves generated by actual pipes, a difference that can be lost on ears used to hearing music filtered through loud speakers. This was a problem only to the extent that the (unmiked) strings and timpani seemed to inhabit a different acoustic space from the soloist, a difference that the coherent and powerful performance was easily capable of overcoming.

The organ’s position shifted from center-stage to stage right for the main event of the concert, Saint-Saens’ “Organ Symphony.” This work is no disguised concerto or “sinfonia concertante,” but a true symphony that draws on the coloration of the organ to achieve a kind of ecclesiastical flavor, meditative and pious in the second movement, militant and triumphant in the fourth. In addition, an orchestral piano (played by two hands and later by four) adds an equally original and important color, scampering and virtuosic in the third movement, ethereal and “heavenly” in the fourth. As noted in my review of the Bard Festival devoted to this composer in 2011, this is a great symphony whose originality and superb craftsmanship is often overlooked because it is so easy to listen to—such “ear-candy” can’t possibly be as high in quality as music that makes the audience work harder. But it is! Maestro Denève chose broad tempi for the first half (each pair of movements is internally joined by a transition passage) and lively ones for the second. The orchestra’s long history with French repertory was apparent in the transparency of the string tone, the precise agility of the winds, and the slightly blaring quality of the brass which was not discouraged here. The conductor’s approach contrasted with his TMC Berlioz performance of last summer, which had been closely micro-managed. Here, he allowed the orchestra to do their thing, presiding in a genial and encouraging way but ensuring precise coordination and balances that revealed the motivic transformations that weave this symphony into a single tapestry. The players were fully alert and clearly enjoying themselves, matching the enthusiasm and energy of their younger TMC colleagues.

Seeing Leon Fleisher seventy-one years into his performing career was a moving experience, not for sentimental reasons, but because he has clearly used all that time to keep growing as a musician. His presence retains its sense of great physical power controlled in the service of a lucidly compelling interpretation, as recalled from a 1963 performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in New York City. What has been added is a sense of repose, of allowing space to work its magic with perfectly formed piano tone, along with an aura of the wisdom to allow sound to make its own statement without obvious manipulation. It is no accident that the program chosen included works by Debussy and Ravel which seemed the most eloquent. Fleisher’s three solos that started the program were quietly radiant. Concerns for the capacity of his right hand to do what was required vanished with the first notes: the textural layers of the Bach transcription were perfectly calibrated, aside from a couple of blurred notes. “La puerta del vino” explored the quiet end of the dynamic range; as in viewing stained glass in a darkened building, the ear opened up and discovered a kaleidoscope of subtle and glowing sound-colors. The “Clair de lune” performance eradicated its clichéd familiarity in its very slow but continuously unfolding luminosity. The performance was literally breath-taking and a revelation.

With the piano-duet portion of the program, the shock of the addition of another piano personality, Katherine Jacobson, required a bit of adjustment. The Brahms “Liebeslieder” Waltzes, absent their vocal and textual component, are charming but light, requiring little more than grace and creative contrast to achieve their effect. After intermission, the great Schubert F minor Fantasy received a fine reading, but piano duet literature exists primarily for the benefit of the performers (much like the madrigal) and for those who are fortunate enough to overhear them in intimate surroundings. Despite its grand structure and dramatic range, hearing this work from half-way back in Ozawa Hall was a bit less than optimal. The two pianists do not fuse into a single personality, and Jacobson, who played “primo” (the upper-register pair of hands), has an energetic and volatile temperament that made for lively dialogue with Fleisher’s solidity and repose in the “secundo.” This is one of those Schubert pieces using the outlines of a sonata but built out of themes that migrate from movement to movement, The reading was beautifully shaped and the final return of the opening quite magical.

After these two modest and relatively undemanding piano duets, the performers uncorked a truly fizzy and intoxicating performance of Ravel’s “La Valse.” Any questions about Fleisher’s capacity for two-handed virtuosity flew out the window, while the kaleidoscopic range of colors (mentioned earlier) expanded to fill the entire dynamic range as well as the entire keyboard. In many ways, hearing the work thus was preferable to a rendition by 100 musicians in the orchestra. The neutrality of piano tone being nudged in so many directions by composer and performers left much to the imagination in a positive way—the suggestions of colors were crystal clear and the control over the buildups of sound in this score, sometimes repressed and sometimes convulsed, never allowed the sound to go over the top and become muddy, even when full-keyboard glissandi saturated the sound-space. The piano version performed with this degree of discipline (especially in the use of pedal) allowed the plenitude of inner detail to emerge in the most active passages, rendering them that much more exciting, a characteristic well-remembered from Fleisher’s former performances of Liszt (and current ones of the Ravel Left-hand Concerto). This performance provided the revelation that while age and physical challenges have produced insight, repose, and wisdom, they have not displaced the power and brilliance that have been there all along.

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