Tanglewood: Final Balm in the Berkshires

Susan Graham, the Boston Symphony Orchestra & Choruses under Maestro Andris Nelsons
(photo: Chris Lee)

This past weekend at Tanglewood, which has focused this season on the varied indelible contributions by Leonard Bernstein, the final classical performances by the Boston Symphony took place, including a performance of Mahler's Symphony #3, a piece that Bernstein himself often conducted and championed, thus an especially appropriate selection for the summer-long celebration of what would have been Lenny's 100th birthday. Often listed as one of the ten finest symphonies in the classical repertoire (and the longest), this work was a thrilling choice for the first concert of this weekend. As author Peter Franklin quotes the composer in an exhaustive examination of the piece in his Mahler Symphony No.3, Mahler declared that “my symphony will be something the world has not had before...the whole of nature finds a voice in it and reveals profound mysteries such as what one might intuit in dreams”. Written in 1896, with no fewer than six movements, it incorporated sources such as the work of Nietzche and choral folk poetry (from another work, subsequently performed the following night of this Tanglewood tribute, Des Knaben Wunderhorn).

The composer insisted from the very beginnings of his work on the importance of the titles of his half dozen movements: Pan awakes and summer marches in, what the flowers in the meadow tell him, what the forest animals tell him, what man tells him, what the angels tell him, and what love tells him. It was composed in a simple little summer cottage on the Altersee in Upper Austria, so the influence of these pastoral surroundings is undeniable, as is the bucolic resonance of Tanglewood's shed. The solo in the fourth movement and women's choir in the fifth movement (“heavenly joy knows no end”) featured Susan Graham singing Nietzche's Also Sprak Zaranthustra. Mahler noted that: “a symphony means to me the building of an imaginary world with the aid of every resource of musical technique”, but that this work didn't keep to traditional forms of a symphony. The composer utilized extra brass, especially trombones and French horns, with themes suggesting pre-History, the way suffering became more prominent, that “the world is deep” and that heaven is man's ultimate goal. There were very minor glitches in pitch from the brass near the start, but these were soon forgotten in the sharper performance which followed, including an off-stage extended trumpet solo (and two snare drums as well). Mahler may have had some difficulty finding an ending for his final movement, but it was captivating from both early quieter and later more bombastic segments. The orchestra, Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Children's Choir, under Conductor Andris Nelsons, all gave this popular piece their best.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable night under the stars and yet another weekend of balm in the Berkshires.


"Moulin Rouge! The Musical": Ooh La La!

Karen Olivo & Aaron Tveit in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

Anticipation was huge from the first announcement that Boston's beloved Colonial Theater, saved from conversion to a student cafeteria, would be totally refurbished and restored to its well-deserved brilliance. The news was coupled with an announcement that its first tenant would be the world premiere of a stage musical production of Moulin Rouge!, based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie that was nominated for Best Picture that year. Mounting a full scale revision would be an enormous challenge, and was preceded by much hoopla and dire predictions that it would never work, considering the source material that was an over-the-top but enjoyable mess.

Danny Burstein in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

Hoopla La La, the naysayers may rest in peace. Moulin Rouge! The Musical has made the transition from screen to stage with much of its facets (including its titular exclamation point) intact, and quite a few pleasant surprises. As impresario Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein) declares at the start, “Welcome bohemians and aristocrats, boulevardiers and mademoiselles to the Moulin Rouge”, and a spectacular sextravaganza it is. Visually stunning, emotionally stirring and shamelessly entertaining, this is a theatrical marvel that had most of its rapt audience smiling from ear to ear for close to three hours. It's an absolute revelation of what the term sui generis means, a truly one-of-a-kind eccentricity that defies categorization, as though one were witnessing Cirque du Soleil on speed. It's an old cliché but never a truer promise that you have never seen anything quite like it.

After a twenty-minute ingeniously choreographed ( by a wizard named Sonya Tayeh) opener, chock full of allusions to songs of all stripes, we're introduced to American composer Christian (Aaron Tveit) who commences via flashback to tell the story of his arrival in Paris where he finds his one true love, the chanteuse Satine (Karen Olivo), and his encounter with new-found friends struggling painter Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and dancer/gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas) and his current squeeze Nini (Robyn Hurder). Those familiar with the film will recall the sinister role of the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) who is also infatuated with Satine and has the money to buy the whole of Moulin Rouge including its star performer. There are several indications along the way that prepare us for what can only be an unhappy end, as Satine's health becomes more and more conspicuously consumptive. There is still so much to take in with all of its visual splendor that we are all just that, taken in.

Karen Olivo, Tam Mutu & Company in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

Not a few in the audience had their own terminal cases of the “whoop whoops” so prevalent in theater today (and one might snipe at the snippets of songs), but one may easily ignore their robotic ecstasy in favor of one's own enjoyment of a display of talent that is almost overwhelming. Olivo (a Tony winner for “West Side Story”), with not one but two dazzling entrances, is breathtaking, and Tveit (first seen in these parts at North Shore Music Theatre's 2007 “Three Musketeers”) is equally magnetic. Burstein has never been better (and as a six time Tony nominee, this just may be his time), supremely in character even when in darkness. Ngaujah (Tony winner for his title role in Fela!), portrays effectively a suggestion of disability and a heart and soul on full display. Rojas and Hurder provide an seductively amusing subplot and some scorching numbers. There's a dynamo of a trio in Jacqueline B. Arnold, Holly James and Jeigh Madjus. And then there is the entire ensemble of triple-threat singers who can also dance and act, under the complex but eternally focused Direction by Alex Timbers.

Aaron Tveit, Sahr Ngaujah & Ricky Rojas in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

On a par with the sublime performances are the creative contributions, much of it tongue-in-cheek. While one can't hum the sets, one can surely extol the Scenic Design by Derek McLane. Charming one with its spectacle and its whimsy (as in its amusing depiction of an artist's garret a la Luhrmann's La Boheme, right down to the “L'Amour” neon sign), this is one hell of an eye-opener (as Satine ironically notes about her gaudily opulent elephantine apartment: “it's subtle, I know, but it amuses me”). The Book by John Logan isn't what one would call complicated, but it's overflowing with characters who know how to crack wise. The Music Supervision by Justin Levine is fabulously intricate work. The Lighting Design by Justin Townsend and Sound Design by Peter Hylenski are extraordinary as well. But it's the Costumes by multiple Tony winner Catherine Zuber that may well endure as the production's most unforgettable experience, in sheer numbers, gorgeousness and jaw-dropping awe.
At the end of the show several characters encapsulate what the Moulin Rouge has always meant to them: Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love. Come to think of it, that could just as aptly be applied, in addition to Moulin Rouge! The Musical, to the joy of theater.


Tanglewood Trio: Mostly from Russia with Love

Ken-David Masur & Kirill Gerstein at Tanglewood
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The Boston Symphony at Tanglewood has been offering a cornucopia of musical treats every weekend all summer long, and none was more fitting and pleasurable than the one just past, which included something for just about any and all tastes in a memorable triduum. It offered not only masterful musicianship but a reminder of a day when the arts from Russia overshadowed political chicanery. The first day of the triduum focused on works by three disparate composers, from Glinka's audience-pleasing 1842 Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila to Rachmaninoff's 1901 Piano Concerto #2 to a complete rendering of Stravinsky's 1910 Firebird, all under the direction of Conductor Ken-David Masur and featuring pianist Kirill Gerstein. The Glinka brought back fond memories of the Sarah Caldwell production of the opera (with unforgettable scenic design by Senn and Pond that was composed of black lacquered boxes with paintings of the titular couple) many years ago presented by her long-defunct opera company. The Stravinsky ballet seems almost tame today, but in its day was a shocker. It remains unusual even for contemporary ears, with its use of no fewer than three harps, and at one point an impossibly low note from an instrument (a tuba) that sounded like a wind instrument breaking wind. Both pieces were extraordinarily well performed (and conducted by Masur), but the hit of the the evening (with several well-deserved bows) was the central piece, the Rachmaninoff, where Gerstein's astonishing pianistic precision and energy was matched by the conductor's lively, baton-less and fully engaged leading of what might have been a mere old war horse but seemed fresh and new. It should be noted that this was one in a series of “Underscore Fridays” wherein a member of the orchestra (in this case English horn player Robert Sheena) explained the role an instrument plays in the playing of a particular piece.

The second program of the triduum presented an appropriate Bernstein Songfest. The full title of the piece is Songfest, a cycle of American poems for Six Singers and Orchestra, an ambitious 1977 work by Bernstein consisting of twelve settings of thirteen American poems, performed by six singers in solos, duets, a trio and three sextets. Intended as a tribute to the 1976 Bicentennial, he didn't finish it on time. Its first complete performance was given a year later by the National Symphony Orchestra (conducted by the composer himself) on October 11, 1977, at Washington's Kennedy Center (though by then some portions had been already performed in other venues). On July 4, 1985, Bernstein conducted a nationally televised performance of Songfest as part of the National Symphony's annual holiday concert. The soloists for the current Tanglewood performance were soprano Nadine Sierra, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Elliot Madore and bass-baritone Eric Owens. The poems included a sextet "To the Poem" (Frank O'Hara), a baritone solo “Pennycandystore Beyond the El" (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), a soprano solo “A Julia de Burgos" (Julia de Burgos), a bass-baritone solo "To What You Said" (Walt Whitman), a duet of "I, Too, Sing America" (Langston Hughes)/"Okay 'Negroes' " (June Jordan), the trio “To My Dear and Loving Husband" (AnneBradstreet), another duet “Storyette H. M.” (Gertrude Stein), another sextet “If you can't eat you got to" (e.e. Cummings). Also in the cycle were another solo "Music I Heard with You" (Conrad Aiken), still another solo "Zizi's Lament" (Gregory Corso) as well as one last solo "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" (Edna St. Vincent Millay) and a final sextet "Israfel" (Edgar Allan Poe). The work is, in this crtic's estimation, an acquired taste, though the Walt Whitman source is of interest historically given its clearly homosexual content. It was followed by a performance of Sibelus' 1902 Symphony No. 2, which Bernstein conducted at Tanglewood in 1986, just four years before his death. After its deceptively somber beginning, this too is an audience-pleaser, at many points sounding as though the composer was winding down, only to top himself with yet another build-up to a triumphant MGM blockbuster ending. It was exceedingly well conducted and performed.

Joshua Bell & Dima Slobodeniouk at Tanglewood
(photo: Hilary Scott)
The third day of the triduum consisted of three works, under Conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, including Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor (completed in 1890 three years after his death, by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov), Henryk Wieniawski's 1862Violin Concerto No.2 with violinist Joshua Bell, and Prokofiev's 1945 Symphony No.5. The piece by Borodin (whose day job was as a chemist) was a fine way to start off a summer's afternoon, with its intended resonance for theater buffs to the later score of the Broadway musical Kismet (with no fewer than three hit songs, “Stranger in Paradise”, “Not Since Nineveh”, and “This Is My Beloved”). The violin concerto, the Polish composer Wieniawski's best known work, is a soloist's dream tour de force. Written in 1870 when he was only thirty-five at the close of his tenure as Court Violinist in St. Petersburg, and selflessly dedicated to his contemporary in Spain, Sarasate, is an astonishing improvement on his first and lesser-known concerto. Rather than showy pyrotechnics, the expressive entrance of the violinist is marked dolce ma sotto voce, though it is more than a merely splendid melodic solo entrance, followed by impressive rhythms that eventually lead into a finale sometimes appears on concert programing as a separate, stand-alone piece, “gypsy style”, considered, as the program notes, a minor masterpiece of romantic literature. It's right up Bell's alley, and he didn't disappoint, and that goes for his brief encore from John Corigliano's score for the film Red Violin, which Bell noted he had performed in the shed twenty years prior. Bell still plays with literally full-bodied gusto. The orchestra's final offering of the program, Prokofiev's Symphony No.5, a work that has much to convey in a relatively brief forty-five minutes or so. Written in 1944, this Ukrainian's best-known symphonic composition is in four somewhat unified movements, the first with some unexpected melodic turns that are frequently recognizable as Prokofiev. Its main theme is expressed right away, first with flutes and bassoons, then with the strings, subsequently with flute and oboe to develop its second theme. There follows a scherzo with clarinet and violins. An adagio provides a dramatic middle section, with the finale echoing the first movement leading to a cheerful and energetic end. And it is noteworthy that the score was hand-written on paper from a store on Boylston Street in Boston; the original currently resides in the main branch of the Boston Public Library.

The Bernstein recognition will continue for the balance of the summer, ending with what promises to be a truly spectacular Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood with a host of conductors from Nelsons to Eschenbach to Lockheart to Tilson Thomas and Williams, all with historical ties to the BSO and Tanglewood. The performers will include Audra McDonald, Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, cellist Kian Soltani, Nadine Sierra, Susan Graham, Isabel Leonard, Thomas Hampson, Jessica Vosk and Tony Yazbeck, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. As previously queried: what greater tribute could one ask for in this Year of Lennie?