For music to make sense, the performer has to be able to display its structure, discover its rhetorical gestures, and properly inflect its musical expression. The performer has to have the understanding, emotional sympathy, and musical ability to do all this. Two of the canonical twentieth century works on this program have offered serious challenges to both performers and audiences: are they arbitrarily constructed to shock and confuse us, or do they make sense? Despite the fact that they continue to raise such questions, both works have become relatively familiar in recent years, and are accepted as modern classics. Arkivmusic.com lists sixteen recordings of the Ives and nine of the Schoenberg; they turn up regularly on orchestral programs. Have audiences gotten to the point where they truly understand these pieces as presented? Have they caught up with Ives and Schoenberg? I think the answer is “not quite.” These remain challenging works, and the extent of the performers’ comprehension remains the critical factor. How well did the TMC Orchestra do under its two conductors? Let’s take each work separately.
In this special version of the popular annual “Tanglewood on Parade” concert, the 75th anniversary of the festival as we know it (more or less) was duly celebrated. On August 5, 1937, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Beethoven concert under Music Director Serge Koussevitzky. (I have already mentioned this in my review of the commemorative repreise of the same program on July 6.) This was the first concert of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, as it was then known, both with the Boston Symphony and on the same property, Tanglewood, which has been the home of the orchestra ever since.
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.
Tanglewood mounts a big spectacular every year on July 4th, with James Taylor, the Boston Pops, and fireworks. An equally appropriate, and perhaps more nuanced, way to acknowledge the role music plays in our national consciousness is to offer a program such as the one which occurred two days later in Ozawa Hall. While each work on this program counts as a classic, and the first two have undoubtedly been played in more than one pops concert, the conjunction of the three offers a thoughtful way to experience and appraise the work of three defining figures of 20th century American music.
The French philosophe Fontanelle famously asked “Sonate, que veux-tu?” in response to the new popularity of a purely instrumental form that asked that the audience do nothing more than sit and listen: “Sonata, what do you want from me?” Hearing Mahler’s extraordinary, gargantuan Third Symphony, one is tempted to repeat the question. What indeed is demanded from the listener by this veritable barrage, this unprecedented outpouring of the full spectra of sounds and noises, human emotional conditions, evocations of life forms from flowers to angels, plumbed philosophical depths, musical allusions encompassing inchoate mutterings, crude military assaults, the most naïve and artless melodies, state-of-the-art sophisticated harmonies, an off-stage post horn, a marriage of a poem by Nietzsche and German folk lyrics, a chorus of boys and women that sings for less than four out of the ninety minutes of the work, pre-echoes of Sousa marches and pop tunes (Sammy Fein’s “I’ll be seeing you…”; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; the Beatles “Yesterday”), deliberate references to Beethoven, Wagner, and for all I know, even Brahms? Judging from the enthusiasm of its response last Saturday night, whatever it was that the audience was actually imagining or experiencing provided it with a full measure of gratification. But the question remains, what was the composer after: “Mahler, que veux-tu?”
A few days later a chance to revel in Strauss’s incidental music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, conducted by the youngster of the conducting fellows, Alexander Prior. This young man made the music come out. The performance was full of character, each movement very well sung by the instruments. One could hear the words they were saying. His conducting was impetuous, but he also found space in the tender music that I would not have expected from one so young. Sarah Silver was absolutely splendid in the solo violin as was Caleb van der Swaagh playing the cello solo. I had always thought of this piece as “fluff”, but this time it moved me. And did they ever play for him.
One can only say that Tanglewood was incredibly lucky in landing James Levine’s distinguished counterpart at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, to replace him for the annual TMC opera concert performance. No conductor could have managed the performance with a keener appreciation of its drama, the melancholy lyricism of its music, the lucidity of Tchaikovsky’s score, and the energy and bite of its climaxes. Sir Andrew has always shown an extraordinary ability to respond to many sides of complex works, and this past Saturday, relatively fresh from conducting Onegin at the Lyric this spring, he produced a rich and balanced reading of the score as well as astonishing playing from the TMC Orchestra. His insight and musicianship were not the only reasons that this was one of the truly unforgettable nights at Tanglewood—or nights of opera anywhere—but it is fitting to honor this extraordinary conductor and musician who is heard all too seldom on the East Coast.