Birds and Dvořák Sing to Each Other: we get to listen

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Baiba Skride
Baiba Skride

Birds and Dvořák Sing to Each Other: we get to listen

The BSO at Tanglewood, July 11, 2021: Music by Carlos Simon, Jan Sibelius, and Antonin Dvorak

Carlos Simon, “Fate Now Conquers” (2020)
Jan Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47
Antonin  Dvořák, Symphony no. 6 in D major, op. 60

Baiba Skride, violin
Andres Nelsons
Boston Symphony Orchestra

It seemed that concert life had returned to normal, even though the audience was clumped into socially distanced groups separated by empty seats and the intermission was replaced by a short pause. The crowd before and after the music milled about without much presence of masks, and the musicians on-stage sat in their normal configuration. Even the lawn looked well-occupied, despite the steady drizzle, with groups on blankets sitting under umbrellas. The concert began without much ado, Andris Nelsons and the musicians launching enthusiastically into Carlos Simon’s brief and rousing opener, “Fate Now Conquers,” bringing the chatter and bustle of the audience to a halt. 

It was like so many other Tanglewood BSO Sunday afternoon concerts of the past, and yet somehow it wasn’t. The orchestra sounded different—there was an extra energy to the attacks, more shape to the phrasing, more character to the sonority. This was especially noticed in the short solos, where tone colors seemed sharper and more characterful, contrasting with those used for orchestral blends. Nowhere in evidence was the familiar business-as-usual manner that in the past had sometimes been produced by tired orchestra musicians just trying to get through another busy weekend. It could have been the freshness at the beginning of a season, but this season was a new kind of beginning, orchestral playing in front of a live audience after a long hiatus, and the players seemed to be energized and refreshed, rediscovering a kind of primal joy in playing. Was it my imagination, or did this find its way out into the audience as well? Sitting halfway back in the shed I could observe those in front of me. Despite one stray cell-phone contributing tinkling tones to the quiet center of the violin concerto, the listeners seemed extra quiet, attentive to the intensity emanating from the stage. During the pastoral trio section of the third movement of Dvořák’s symphony, a group of birds in the rafters overhead joined in, singing their hearts out along with the piccolo, flute, and other wind solos, as if welcoming the chance to resume their conversation with humanity. 

“Fate Now Conquers” is a brilliantly scored toccata-like overture (in all but name) whose title comes from a journal entry by Beethoven, the composer whose Seventh Symphony Allegretto is credited as the source of inspiration for this work. That source was not obvious: its stateliness is transformed into dynamic, even racy energy with Beethoven’s chordal insistence here accelerated into rapid, stuttering repeated-note figures that fly around the orchestra. It speaks a thoroughly tonal language and was received with much enthusiasm.

Baiba Skride’s performance of the Sibelius concerto was smooth as silk yet temperamental and passionate. She has a virtuoso technique which includes a very fluid bow arm and a sweet tone that served the concerto’s opening well; the music seemed to approach from afar, from the mists somewhere out beyond the Stockbidge Bowl. The qualities of magic and mystery were retained, the solo part darting like quicksilver or hovering in lyrical passages. Nelsons kept the orchestra restrained in its lightly scored accompanying role, but let it loose during the tutti passages where the trombones were allowed to open their throttles. During quiet moments in the slow movement, the soloist turned to face the brass section directly, as if inviting them to join in a chamber-music relationship. It was only in the increasingly wild dance of the finale that the orchestra threatened to overpower the violin, already at the usual acoustic disadvantage of a shed designed to hold 7000. Nelsons stayed on the tightrope between orchestral energy and solo audibility and all forces arrived at the final note intact.

The main focus of interest for me (and maybe for more seasoned listeners in the audience) was the  Dvořák symphony. Perhaps a word needs to be said about this. 

 Dvořák wrote nine symphonies, but even this fact was not clearly established until well into the 20th century. He believed that his first two symphonies (written in 1865, when the composer was 23) had been lost. His next three symphonies earned him recognition and gained him state support, but he did not include them in his own numbering system; for him, Symphony no. 6 was the real beginning (it was the first to be published), and he granted the no. 1 designation. Later, the numbering shifted and when I first encountered them, the “New World” was no. 5 and the G major was no. 4. That changed again when all nine symphonies were first recorded as an integral set by Istvan Kertesz in 1966 with the London Symphony, complete with their correct chronological enumeration. The full corpus demonstrates a growing mastery of style and technique, as well as  Dvořák’s growing embrace of a conservative Germanic classicism. This was reinforced by the enthusiastic approval that he received from Brahms in 1877 which proved pivotal to Dvořák’s ascendance. While Beethoven’s and Brahms’s symphonies also display their composers’ growth, they start with works that were issued by already well-established composers confident of their craft and relatively settled in their artistic directions; Beethoven was 29 years old and Brahms 46. At the time of his first symphony,  Dvořák was 24, poor, unknown, working as an orchestral violist in Prague. While interesting, ambitious, and bursting with ideas, this early symphony (nicknamed “The Bells of Zlonice”) is full of rough edges and rambling passages; it speaks to future potential rather than present achievement. The journey from there to the assured symphonic mastery of the later symphonies is a longer and more gradual one than we see in other canonical symphonists. By the time Symphony no. 6 arrived fifteen years later, the traversal of that distance was approaching completion.

While it has been performed before at Tanglewood (most recently in 2006), it is not the regular presence that his last three symphonies are, not to speak of Brahms’ four or Beethoven’s nine. It was therefore doubly welcome to return from orchestral concert lockdown to a rare experience: a relatively unfamiliar but major symphonic work full of familiar traits (classical Germanic symphonic form, echoes of Beethoven, Brahms, and Czech folkloric nationalism) assembled into a unique and powerful package. Should this symphony be considered the equal of “the New World” (or nos. 7 & 8, for that matter)? Those works retain their power with repeated exposure—they possess compelling development and gestural unity that can support a variety of interpretive approaches, so that frequent performance does not make them dull. But the question is not answerable; no. 6 seems emotionally simpler and more open-hearted. If one of its clear models, Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in the same key (composed 3 years earlier) is that composer’s “Pastorale,” this work is even more so. There are few dark clouds in any of the movements; many passages are devoted to “rising motions,” that is, melodies and modulations moving toward brighter regions of color and harmony, toward festive arrivals and celebration. The tunes are well-crafted and full of character, but I doubt if they linger in the listeners’ ears the way those of the last three symphonies do (at least for me). 

The parallels to Brahms (four-movement classical structure, approximate 40 minute duration, similar meters and rhythms in the corresponding movements, very similar opening ideas and immediate development in first and last movements) also point out the differences. Brahms’ melodies are built out of a tight network of short motives, while  Dvořák’s are longer and looser. The same comparison applies to the wide-ranging harmonic progressions: where Brahms’ always feel as if they belong to an unwavering long-range plan,  Dvořák’s seem almost improvisatory, circling around from key to key and enjoying momentary surprises and detours along the way. This can be delightful, although in the last movement, there can be a feeling that things are getting stretched out a bit. These observations would not be applicable to the three later symphonies. Nelsons and the orchestra found the rhythmic impulse to keep the music moving and to minimize its digressiveness. The substantial brass parts were played with alertness and bite, and the orchestral ensemble remained tight. The performance reminded me of how much  Dvořák owed to folk dance, and set me to wonder whether he himself knew the steps and moves for the many dance forms that inspired him. It raised the interesting question about which other composers may also have been able to dance to their own music or its folk sources. Its easy to picture Bartók and Kodály (as well as Mozart!) as dancers, but less easy for Beethoven or Brahms. Those were some of the amusing images and fantasies that stayed with me after this wonderful performance.

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