Monday, July 12, 2010

three days at tanglewood part 1

July 9-11, 2010
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Mahler, Symphony No. 2
Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting
Layla Claire, soprano
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Beethoven, King Stephen Overture
Piano Concerto No. 3
Symphony No. 5
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Gerhard Oppitz, piano

Mozart, Serenade No. 6
Violin Concerto No. 5
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Pinchas Zukerman, violin

My weekend in the Berkshires was bookended by massive German works of late Romanticism/early modernism, with a creamy center of Beethoven and Mozart. A three-day visit to Tanglewood guarantees a ton of music and any engaged listener gets a healthy diet of the orchestral repertoire. In high school, my two summers at Tanglewood exposed me to all of the staples--your Jupiter Symphony, your Bruckner Four, your Daphnis and Chloe. For a young listener unfamiliar with these warhorses, it's a complete immersion in a new world, an opportunity to meet the classics face to face.

But it's a different experience four years later, now that I have a sense of hardened knowledge of the so-called orch rep. Rather than soliloquize about how incredible it would be to see a performance of Mahler's Second, I hoped that it would beat out the excellent one I heard a few months back. Or that my third Beethoven's Fifth this year would be worth the thirty minutes of my time. Or that I wouldn't fall asleep during the dreaded Heldenleben. Luckily, most of the performances were quite good, especially given the impeccable playing of the BSO.

Let's start with Opening Night. At first I thought it would be a minor feat, as a fairly inexperienced critic, to compare two Tilson-Thomas Mahler Seconds with different orchestras (I heard him conduct it with the SF Symphony in March). With the same great conductor and the same great piece, how different could two performances be? I assumed I would comment lightly on differences in the string sounds of SF and Boston, the quality of the choruses, the acoustics of Carnegie Hall versus the Koussevitsky Shed. Instead, Friday night's concert proved a point which seems to keep coming up in discussions I have about San Fransisco's music director: MTT's approach does not work with every orchestra.

Every time MTT comes to town, the inevitable comment that various orchestras (especially the New York Phil and the CSO) dislike him crops up. Whether or not it is actually true is difficult to ascertain, since it's not the kind of thing you read about in the New York Times, and the opinions of various disgruntled orchestral musicians do not always add up to a cogent argument. That said, after hearing him conduct the CSO and BSO, and the SF Symphony twice, it's clear that the San Fransisco musicians play much better with his conducting style than either the Chicago or Boston orchestras. From the opening notes of Mahler's Todtenfeier, that brash funeral march which begins the symphony, the disconnect between what MTT conducted and what Boston played was apparent.

Though MTT's slashing movements and podium dances should have yielded sensational results, they did not. The visceral nature of the opening gesture was lost in favor of a precise, almost-fossilized series of notes. Boston's tight ensemble control and lushness rendered the second theme a halo of sound---their silky, refined strings sustained the moments of peaceful tranquility before plunging into the depths of the funeral rites. MTT's baton seemed to probe those depths, but the orchestra had no interest in his fiery interpretation---at times, it felt more like Levine's Mahler than Tilson-Thomas's. An extended, borderline-comedic pause between the first and second movements (oddly, MTT played it for laughs) broke the spell of Mahler's music (Mahler calls for a five-minute break, and a three-minute one with lighting changes and chit-chat doesn't seem to do it justice). The BSO played the second movement as a lithe, graceful dance, with much more polish than MTT's home orchestra, especially in their round, precise pizzicati.

In the Fischpredigt scherzo (a musical version of St. Anthony's sermon to the fish), a stew of winds and percussion set the swaggering pace, and MTT's conducting seemed to align with the orchestra's playing as he brought out the music's folksy charm and klezmer-inflected rhythms. But what truly distinguished this performance from SF at Carnegie was the quality of the vocals. Stephanie Blythe sang the first Urlicht I have actually enjoyed in a live performance, proving that the movement truly needs an opera singer to compete with Mahler's orchestra. Her warm, mellow mezzo voice soared over the orchestral panorama while simultaneously encapsulating the intimacy of the music. She declaimed "Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott" with operatic drama and a heightened sense of the spirituality of the text. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus produced a magnificent blend of colors in the spectacle of the finale (soprano Layla Claire also made notable contributions to the beauty of the sound).

Towards the end of the Resurrection, as the chorus, soloists, and orchestra built towards their grand climax, MTT finally went all out. Rather than attempting to shape the sound, he reveled in it, basking in Mahler's exultation with arms raised triumphantly. The musicians finally seemed to click with him, looking up from their stands and realizing it wasn't Levine leading. The final moments were fully engaged, packing the emotional punch the rest of the symphony lacked. Though MTT will probably never succeed Levine at the BSO, it seemed for just a second that he could.

Parts two and three of my Tanglewood reviews coming up later this week.


  1. oy. i cringe at the breaking-the-mahler-spell-with-extended-breaks breaks. did you ever see mtt conduct mahler 2 with cso? i thought it was magnificent... but i'm wanting to see him conduct it with sf now.

    can't wait to hear about this "creamy center" you speak of.

    also. nice twitter feed addition to the blog.

    and did you eat a loebs-wich?

  2. nah I saw CSO with Haitink mahler 2 (MTT with SF was great though)
    No didn't get a loebs-wich, but loaded up on some delicious Betty's pizza.