Berkshire / Berkshire Review / Music

Shakespeare and Egypt?

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Dejan Lazic. Photo by Susie Knoll.
Dejan Lazic. Photo by Susie Knoll.

The Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, Sunday, August 21

Hector Berlioz – Overture to Beatrice et Benedict
George Tsontakis – “Sonnets,” tone poems for English Horn and Orchestra (2015), Robert Sheena – English Horn
Camille Saint-Saens – Piano Concerto no. 5 in F, op. 103, “Egyptian,” Dejan Lazic – piano
Sergei Prokofiev – excerpts from the ballet “Romeo and Juliet”

Shakespeare-inspired opera, ballet, and tone poems formed the frame-work for this colorfully varied program, somehow containing the non-Shakespearean and infrequently heard Saint-Saens “Egyptian” Concerto. A charitable stretch might imagine a reference to “Anthony and Cleopatra,” but thematic consistency is not necessary for an interesting afternoon of music.

Berlioz’s elfin overture set a light, cheerful, and bantering tone for the afternoon. This is Berlioz the classicist, not the luridly sublime master of the “March to the Gallows.” Although Mendelssohn was dismayed by Symphonie Fantastique, he should have heard this piece; he might have changed his mind.

The Tsontakis “Sonnets” were the important focal-point of the first part of the program, offering as they did a unique genre, in which each tone poem addressed a specific sonnet whose text was printed in the program. The program notes explained that the last of the four, Sonnet 75 which begins “So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground,…” supplies the solo instrument with its line as if it were a song, setting the text syllable by syllable. An alternate version for mezzo-soprano voice seems conceivable. The first two sections treat their sonnets (30 and 12) as scenarios while the third tone poem focuses on the image of the first couplet: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end….”The first three sonnets focus pessimistically on the passage of time, while the last focuses pessimistically on the contradictory tendency to treat love as a commodity. Despite all this pessimism in the texts, the character of the music points towards the sensitivity of language and feelings expressed. The orchestra creates quietly mixed colors often in the upper registers, leaving space for the rich solo instrument to be easily heard. Unusual mixtures of strings and winds with percussion and harp stay on the transparent side, indicating unusual states of being, hints of fleeting moods, flashes of insight that vanish instantly. The musical language is almost tonal in many places—the harmonies are inventive but never harsh, and the solo line flexible and eloquent, as was the performance by Robert Sheena, who has been an important voice in the orchestra and an instigator of new compositions for his instrument.

The Saint-Saens concerto is a favorite dark-horse of mine; I gave it a rave review when it was performed at the Bard Festival four summers ago by Danny Driver and the American Symphony, a performance which revealed the ingenuity of its thematic transformations, interest sequence of movements, and exuberant touches of orientalisme. Unfortunately, the BSO’s performance with Dejan Lazic proved to be ineffective. I hold both soloist and conductor Andris Nelsons equally responsible—the pianist because he affected extremely quiet dynamic levels which require great technical skill and were perhaps trying to make the contrarian point that in a space like the Tanglewood Shed the audience needs to focus particular attention if it is to hear the soloist; but it simply meant that significant stretches of the solo part vanished from hearing or were so soft that they failed to sustain the line of musical development. Nelsons’ misdeed was to try to blow up individual louder moments of the orchestra part perhaps to compensate for the whisperings of the soloist, but in doing so, he failed to maintain a consistent sense of pulse, so these blooms of orchestral sound seemed to flourish in a temporal vacuum. The result was a series of disconnected moments that could not provide the narrative thread essential to this music. The second movement, it is true, is constructed as a series of apparently unrelated episodes, but the performers need to show the disjunctions so that we can enjoy the picaresque quality of the music—it is, after all, a kind of travelogue—rather than to actually play in a disjunct way. The result was a journey in which the traveler fails to see how the scenery changes owing to periodic losses of consciousness. Danny Driver and other pianists who specialize in French literature know how to do this—through a clarity of articulation and display of the logic of phrase structure, which is always present in Saint-Saens’ music.

The Prokofiev ballet music drew from all three suites that the composer created, offering a unique narrative view, beginning brightly with the “Morning Dance” from the Third Suite, and ending depressingly with “The Death of Tybalt” from the First Suite. It was an interesting trajectory, with most sections already quite familiar. This made it possible to compare Nelsons’ view of the music with that of others, and it proved to be wider-ranging and more dramatic, with very strong dynamic contrasts, and flexible tempi that permitted underlining emphatic passages, drawing out quiet ones, and speeding through exciting sections. It certainly was a crowd-pleasing performance, but raised the question of whether such point-making was necessary.

Prokofiev is one of my favorite orchestral composers; he has a wonderfully distinctive voice, completely different from Shostakovich or any non-Russian contemporary you can name. He does not hesitate to mix colors in the lower reaches of the orchestra, and does so avoiding any hint of murkiness or unclarity. A great performer himself, he knew how much weight to give to accents in the orchestra and how to achieve brilliance with any instrument. Other conductors (who shall not be named) have played this great score with less tweaking, letting it speak for itself in a highly successful way. One difference, however, is that in a performance such as Nelsons’, the audience can see how the effects are being achieved by watching the conductor’s choreography, whereas some of those others (WSNBN) are modest in their gestures and happy to let the composer receive the benediction of the audience.

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