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?

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