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.

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