Still Celebrating! Bramwell Tovey Conducts Bernstein’s Songfest at Tanglewood

08/08/2018

Tanglewood [2]- Bernstein, Sibelius: Soloists, Boston Symphony Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 4.8.2018. (RP)

Bramwell Tovey leads the BSO and soloists in Bernstein’s Songfest © Hilary Scott

Bernstein Songfest

Soloists: Nadine Sierra (soprano),  Isabel Leonard and Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-sopranos), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Elliot Madore (baritone) and Eric Owens (bass)

Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

With Songfest, my personal commemoration of the Bernstein Centennial is all but complete. My quest has been to experience those big works from the 1970s that never found much critical or popular acceptance: A Quiet Place, Mass, Songfest. I thought of them as giant birds, almost incapable of flight, but have reassessed works that I only knew from recordings, none more so than Songfest.

Songfest is Bernstein at the height of his powers, setting works by poets who span the American experience, from Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a wooden ship, to Julia de Burgos, the twentieth-century Puerto Rican poet. It ends with a hymn to the eternal as captured in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Israfel’, a poem about the angel to be found only in the Koran, ‘whose heartstrings are a lute, and has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures’.

That’s a lot to pack into some 40 minutes of music, but Bernstein did it with aplomb. Songfest opens with a Copland-like brass fanfare, but that was just to get your attention. What follows is fresh and fascinating music full of the beautiful, soaring melodies, energetic rhythms and scintillating orchestrations that were his trademark. Most of all, they are the sounds of America.

To give voice to the words and music, Tanglewood assembled a sextet of singers who rank among the finest of the day and also represent today’s America, ethnically and racially. Musically that’s immaterial (I’m sure it was in the hiring too), but the visual impact was potent. Just take a look at the illustrious cast of singers that Bernstein handpicked for the premiere to see how times have changed.

The singers brought a sassiness to the performance that got to the very soul of Songfest, ranging from soprano Nadine Sierra’s sensuous singing in ‘A Julia de Burgos’ to the profound, as Eric Owen’s majestic bass gave voice to Walt Whitman’s ‘To What You Said’. Sentimentality was added by mezzo-sopranos Isabel Leonard in the setting of Conrad Aiken’s ‘Music I Heard with You’ and Kelly O’Connor in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Sonnet: What lips my lips have kissed…’ (purportedly the composer’s own personal favorite).

There was frisson too, as when Leonard joined baritone Elliot Madore in the powerful duet that juxtaposed Langston Hughes’ ‘I, Too, Sing America’ and June Jordan’s ‘Okay ‘Negroes’’. Earlier Madore had sung the wonderful string of words ‘A car upon the counter moved among the licorice sticks and tootsie rolls’ from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s ‘The pennycandystore beyond the El’. And, of course, there was humor, provided by tenor Nicholas Phan in ‘Zizi’s Lament’, a poem by Gregory Torso, one of the youngest writers of the Beat Generation.

That brief flash of brass in the opening measures of Songfest was perhaps less of a tease than a foreshadowing of what was to come in Sibelius’ Symphony No.2. It also linked to the centennial commemoration as Bernstein conducted a performance of it with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, made up of the TMC’s young instrumental Fellows, in 1986. Tanglewood isn’t just a summer concert venue, it is one of the world’s great training grounds for young musicians.

Bramwell Tovey led a majestic, monumental performance of this surefire crowd pleaser. It’s one of those rare works that was popular from the start and has remained so. The symphony is a long series of climaxes spanning across four movements that leads to a triumphant conclusion. Each phrase, however, was meticulous shaped, building upon the layers of sound that Sibelius combined to such brilliant effect.

The brass and solo tympani feature prominently throughout but dominate the Finale. As the last notes resounded through the hall, the audience jumped to its feet. Tovey’s first order of business was to bid the brass and tympanist to stand and acknowledge the thunderous ovation. It wasn’t all for them, but a fair share of it was.

Rick Perdian

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

MW

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2019-20 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden __________________________________
  • NEW! Bregenz Festival 17 July – 18 August 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Sergei Polunin and Friends at London Palladium 28 May – 1 June 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 Elgar Festival in Worcester from 30 May to 2 June __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2019 from 30 August to 19 September __________________________________
  • NEW! 2019 BBC Proms 19 July – 14 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera House in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera in 2019-2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder Announces 2019 Art-Song Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! Adrian Partington Introduces the 2019 Three Choirs Festival in Conversation with John Quinn __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB in 2019-2020 and Updates on their New London City Island Home __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Longborough Festival Opera’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! CONDUCTOR THOMAS SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! YOUNG RUSSIAN PIANIST ALEXANDRA DOVGAN TALKS TO GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! Chelsea Opera Group Perform Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon on 30 June __________________________________
  • NEW! When Music is Indistinguishable from Drama by Jack Buckley __________________________________
  • NEW! In August Fulham Opera’s Most Ambitious Project to Date – Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg __________________________________
  • R.I.P. IN MEMORIAM ANDRÉ PREVIN (1929-2019) __________________________________
  • NEW! CHRISTOPHE ROUSSET IN CONVERSATION WITH COLIN CLARKE __________________________________
  • PIANIST MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • SOPRANO ELENA MOȘUC IN CONVERSATION WITH CASEY CREEL __________________________________
  • MAESTRO RICCARDO FRIZZA IN CONVERSATION WITH MARGARIDA MOTA-BULL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month