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Tanglewood Tales

Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed
07/29/2000 -  

29 July 2000
Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini Overture
Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto
Cesar Franck: Symphony in d
Louis Lortie (piano)
Boston Symphony
Emmanuel Villaume (conductor)
30 July 2000
Julian Anderson: The Stations of the Sun
Felix Mendelssohn: The Fair Melusine
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 1
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

Nestled in the foothills of the beautiful Berkshires, the old Tanglewood estate of the Tappan family has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony since Serge Koussevitzky appropriated it in the mid-1930's to house the music festival originally created for the New York Philharmonic in neighboring Stockbridge. This is an area proud of its literary heritage and home at various times in the nineteenth century to Emerson, Hawthorne, Wharton and Melville (it is said that Mount Graylock reminded him of a whale). The ride up is spectacular and the grounds are immaculately verdant, perhaps even more so this season because of the virtually steady rain which has lent New York harbor an air of Puget Sound and cloaked the approach of August in a cool but comforting disguise. The talk of this season is the installation of giant TV screens, designed to enhance the experience of the "lawn people", normally thousands who attend these concerts primarily for the elaborate picnics and breathtaking vistas and only ancillarily for the musical performances, but, on this weekend in the mountains, the twin Leviathans beamed their images only into the void as cascades of water eliminated even the thought of anyone's serious outdoor repast. Those of us in the shed itself were treated to dry but dirty conditions (they apparently haven't swept the floor here since the Monteux era) and experienced sibling concerts as different as Young Goodman Brown and the Devil himself.

It is perhaps too jingoistic to state that French music needs a French conductor, but it has been my experience that a non-Gallic leader seldom understands or communicates the idiom properly. Young Emmanuel Villaume, a shorn and gangly giant with expressively dramatic gestures, demonstrated his thorough familiarity with this style in an excellent program that was both idiosyncratic and exciting. Reminding one strongly of the youthful and imposing Dmitri Mitropoulos, Villaume was in solid command from the opening overture, a strange piece even within the slightly off-center world of Hector Berlioz. This is not even the famous overture from the opera (that honor being reserved for the Roman Carnival) but Villaume emphasized quite rightly the extreme contrasts of this rollicking miniature which juxtaposes the comical with the romantic, the boisterous with the tender, the legato with the sforzando. One could hear the rebelliousness that is the essence of Cellini, captured so lovingly by Berlioz after he was transported by reading the Autobiography. Although there was some initial slovenliness from the troops (perhaps due to the intense humidity), the battle was soundly and convincingly won.

Idiom is everything in the Ravel and thankfully Louis Lortie is fluent in the language of this modern master. There was just the right touch of jazz in his conception, not total abandonment but rather a knowing nod and wink. His almost North African rhythm was in perfect sync with the orchestra and he played the poignant opening solo of the second movement with a longingly sophisticated restraint that was profoundly uncomfortable in its yearnings, the famous resolution a true release of our imprisoned passions. Villaume mirrored this style in the orchestral echo and presided elsewhere over a well thought out essay on rhythm. The orchestra rallied from its initial wobbliness in the Berlioz and mastered as much tautness as was possible under the soggy circumstances.

The weather conditions actually aided the performance of the Franck, the imaginary organ portrayed by the orchestra sounding vaguely immersed, like Debussy's Sunken Cathedral. Villaume opened the luxurious first movement like a flower, slowly exposing its beauty and power with a rare understanding of architectural pacing, introducing each inner repetition of the main theme as an imposing visitor to a symposium and combining the whole into a triumphant exhalation of joy. The pizzicato second movement was thrilling, each pluck of the harp eagerly anticipated by the conductor's careful phrasing and the finale was breathtaking, rushing headlong into glorious oblivion. This was simply the best performance of the old chestnut that I have ever heard (even on recordings) and puts the lie to the rumor that the BSO has lost its intonation, motivation and inspiration. Perhaps this aspirant from the world of opera could be a candidate for Seiji's job. If he can do German repertoire this well, I'd hire him on the spot. We all left the estate on Saturday night with the distinct feeling that this was the finest concert that any of us would hear for a long time to come.

Except that I came back the following afternoon and, like Lot's wife, paid a high price for my folly. The only element of consistency between these two events was the rain, which continued unabated and even seemed to intensify during the proceedings. For this Sunday afternoon presentation, twelve-year-old Ilan Volkov waved his arms in front of the ensemble in a lackluster performance that devolved from the ridiculous to the porcine. He's not really 12, of course, but appeared to be up there in his father's summer tux and did nothing but follow his forces, beating time with a stiff four-square approach and exhorting individual sections only when the textbook approved. Tanglewood is a teaching institution and all young conductors need to start somewhere, so I am willing to sit through an occasional debutante performance, but at least some contribution of individuality would be appreciated.

You too can become a composer, just buy the right software, press go and write a piece as vapid as the opening work on this concert. One could almost hear the mouse clicks as a new percussion instrument chimed in every few measures. I've already wasted enough ink on this travesty so I'll jump right into my condemnation of the Mendelssohn, positioned absolutely incorrectly in this lukewarm experience. Obviously designed as a curtain raiser, this gentle precursor of the tone poem was never intended to be performed right before an intermission and its flaccid interpretation only served to make the crowd, already desensitized by the Anderson, even less attentive. I noticed many patrons staring to the right or left, concentrating on the rain (and the long ride home) and ignoring the proceedings on the stage.

What should have saved this event was the appearance of a superstar guest in a great and powerful concerto. What occurred instead was an extremely sloppy run through of the Brahms, Barenboim fudging his way through hundreds of wrong notes with an irritated look on his face mirroring that of many of his listeners. With no inspiration from the podium, the pianist seemed to be uninterested in matters of technique which led to the music being enveloped in an aura of impatience. Barenboim proved that he wasn't even the best pianist in the room, as I had spotted Emmanuel Ax and his wife in the audience, and never rose to the level of even elementary musicianship in this grumbling reading. The orchestra seemed to try and play well (again the moisture was a major impediment) but they were headless and reminded me of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, rolling around as only a torso but still trying to stand their ground. Mr. Barenboim should be ashamed to take the money from the BSO but still received several minutes of standing ovation from the forgiving summer crowd. Oh well, at least the rain let up as we approached the city.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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