Chamber Music at Tanglewood – From Bach to Balch

United StatesUnited States Tanglewood [3] – Various composers: Various performers, Tanglewood Music Center Fellows Chamber Concert, Seiji Ozawa Hall, Lenox, 5.8.2018. (RP)

Seiji Ozawa Hall at the Tanglewood Music Center © Stu Rosner
Seiji Ozawa Hall at the Tanglewood Music Center © Stu Rosner

KnussenOphelia’s Last Dance Op.32
Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.3
WourinenBearbeitung über das Glogauer Liederbuch
BalchThread Unfurled
SchoenbergVerklärte Nacht Op.4
GibsonI prefer living in color
BeethovenString Quartet No.9 in C major Op.59 No.3

The Tanglewood Music Center is renowned for the world-famous artists who spent summers here in their youth. Chamber music concerts offered throughout the summer season provide the opportunity to hear the current class of outstanding young artists coached by TMC Faculty Members in a wide repertoire. Seiji Ozawa Hall, where the concerts take place, seats 1200 people and, on a warm Sunday morning such as this one was, the audience spills out onto the lawn.

This was a mini-marathon of a concert with seven works done over almost two hours by 34 performers, including one of the TMC faculty members sitting in as a violist in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht; and three members of The New Fromm Players, an ensemble of recent TCM alumni who have distinguished themselves in the performance of new music, in Sarah Gibson’s I prefer living in color. This won’t be a typical review, for to mention a single performer at the expense of the others just wouldn’t be right, with one exception.

The first work heard on this warm Sunday morning was performed by Kirill Gerstein, the 2018 Koussevitsky Artist in Residence at the festival, in honor of Oliver Knussen, who died on 8 July 2018. Knussen came as a student to Tanglewood in 1970 and served on its faculty for many years. The work was Ophelia’s Last Dance, commissioned by the Gilmore International Keyboard Competition in 2010. It is a dreamlike and playful collection of dance tunes, although in this performance it took on a pensive mood.

After a brief intermission to rearrange the stage, within a few seconds most of the heads in the hall were bobbing along to the familiar strains of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3. Scored solely for strings, the solo instruments nonetheless emerged clearly from the musical fabric in this spirited, polished performance.

Next up was Charles Wourinen’s Bearbeitung über das Glogauer Liederbuch, based upon melodies from a collection of fifteenth-century chansons and sacred works. Scored for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin and double bass, the modern sensibilities that he brought to bear on the ancient melodies resulted in a realistic re-creation of early music sound. With your eyes closed, you might have been fooled into thinking that the quartet was playing period instruments.

Katherine Balch is one of this year’s six TMC Composition Fellows. Thread Unfurled, composed in 2016, was inspired by her fascination with glowworms. Scored for flute and piano, it is a spellbinding work that opens with a nervous energy that soon subsides into relative stillness. There is a twentieth-century, avant-garde sensibility of sorts to the work due to the use of a prepared piano and the flutist turning to play the final notes into the lid of the instrument. The transfixing sounds became the musical equivalent of thousands of random, iridescent flashes of light that punctuate the dark.

The hothouse atmosphere of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht was all but overwhelming after the serenity of Thread Unfurled. Written shortly after the composer met the woman who would become his wife, he expressed his ardor in cascades of post-Wagnerian chromaticism. The seamless legato sound produced by the nine string players throbbed with sensuality, increasing the temperature in the hall by several degrees.

After the languor of Verklärte Nacht, Gibson’s I prefer living in color (2017) was a much-needed jolt of energy to shake off the stupor. Scored for bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, it is David Hockney’s ‘Snail’s Pace’ depicted in music. The snappy rhythms in the marimba and wood blocks yield to a lyrical melody in the bass clarinet as the players set out to recreate a ride on Mulholland Drive, the 21-mile road that snakes along the Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood Hills. As the musical ride continues, melodies emerge in fits and starts against a backdrop of virtuosic percussion riffs until the piece ends with a snap.

There was a marked sense of eager anticipation in the audience as the four musicians walked on stage for the final work on the program, Beethoven’s String Quartet No.9. The flowing lines and arpeggiated chords of the quartet’s first movement were a gentle entrée into a perfectly paced performance of the work. All the excitement comes in the final movement. The brief fugue was particularly fiery, propelling the work forward to the triumphant coda and, as the final notes sounded, the audience jumped to its feet. It had been quite a musical ride.

Rick Perdian

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