Tanglewood: Calm and Balm in the Berkshires

Conductor Moritz Gnann and Pianist Paul Lewis at Tanglewood
(photo: Hilary Scott)

If the current politically hot season (which seems endless of late) is getting you down, a trip to the Berkshires and the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood may be just what your therapist (who's probably on vacation anyway) might have ordered. When the headlines abound with disturbing news at home and abroad, one antidote sure to restore your flagging spirits is to resist via the arts, which have always managed to provide restoration as well as response to the turmoil. On a warm summer's night, that was indisputably provided by the BSO's triple play of Wagner, Mozart and Schumann.

Rest assured that even with these heavyweights on offer, the balm and calm quotient was well provided, in that the pieces chosen were (for these composers, anyway) atypically light and refreshing, beginning with Siegfried Idyll, with Wagner at his most approachable and beloved. One doesn't have to be a classical music scholar to discern that this work was first and foremost a labor of love, even if one isn't familiar with its history, which is undeniably charming. Its first performance was on Christmas morning in 1870 as a birthday present from Wagner to his wife after the birth of his only son. As a curtain raiser, it perfectly set the mood for what was to follow.

From a century earlier, the Mozart choice was his Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, which was first performed in 1791, and was first performed by the BSO (at Tanglewood, no less) in 1963. Though often referred to as “autumnal” (including in this performance's program notes) it was a wise choice to continue the night's thematic purpose, as its melodious expression was again indicative of the power of music to move and inspire. It's Mozart at his most direct and simple, even sublime. Beautifully led by Moritz Gnann (now completing his third season as the BSO's assistant conductor), as was the whole program, this piece was enhanced by the remarkable playing of pianist Paul Lewis, who next month will be commencing a multi-year survey at Tanglewood in works for the piano by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. He managed to enhance the effect of the piece precisely by deemphasizing more virtuosic technical displays, proving that often less is more. If this performance was any indication, this should be a fascinating project indeed.

The third and last piece, Shumann's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Opus 97, a much more positive work than the composer is famous for, accounting for its common subtitle, the “Rhenish” Symphony, with its warmth and colorful imagery of the Rhine River. Though the composer never attributed the name, it's clearly appropriate with its easily applicable pictures of the flow of the mighty river, especially when juxtaposed with compositions created during his more melancholy and unstable periods. It's atypical even in its format, with a total of five movements rather than four.

As noted, it was a pluperfect presentation of music that fit the occasion and the season. But it is by no means the last. Coming weekend programs will include Glinka's overture to his opera Ruslan and Ludmila, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2 and the complete Stravinsky Firebird; a Bernstein Songfest that will feature Nadine Sierra, Isabel Leonard, Kelley O'Connor, Nicholas Phan, Elliot Madore and Eric Owens, and Wieniawski's Violin Concerto No.2 with Joshual Bell; and a spectacular Bernstein Centennial Celebration with a host of conductors and performers including Audra McDonald, Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, cellist Kian Soltani, Nadine Sierra, Susan Graham, Isabel Leonard, and Thomas Hampson. What greater tribute could one ask for in this Year of Lennie?

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