United States Tanglewood  – Schoenberg, Beethoven: Nicole Cabell (soprano), J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Morris Robinson (bass), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra / James Burton, Giancarlo Guerrero (conductors), Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 25.8.2019. (RP)
Schoenberg – Friede auf Erden, Op.13
Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125
In keeping with tradition, the Boston Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its 2019 Tanglewood season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The weather was perfect and spirits were high. Beethoven’s monumental work has often been called upon to celebrate freedom and brotherhood, but not on this occasion. Rather, it was the pealing of bells at Tanglewood that commemorated the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first enslaved Africans in English North America in 1619. Lest one think there was a hidden political agenda at play, the nationwide observance was organized by the US National Park Service.
A week earlier, I had read in the weekend edition of the Financial Times that newly elected members of the European Parliament from the UK’s Brexit party had turned their backs when the Ode to Joy played at the body’s opening session. In the same article, I learned that Brexit supporters had threatened to boycott the Three Choirs Festival for programming the Ninth this summer. It was deemed inappropriate for ‘an area that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit’. This week’s FT bemoaned this ‘dreary era of politicization of everything, everywhere, all of the time’.
No audience is a political monolith, and MAGA hats were sported by some in the audience which numbered in the thousands. In the parking lot, Bernie, Warren and Pete bumper stickers could be seen. Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero’s brief remarks were eloquent and to the point. Only a smattering of applause broke out after he spoke, and then again when the reverberation of the bells had faded away. For many, silence was the only conceivable response. It wasn’t a given, but somehow we managed to transcend politics for a few minutes.
The concert opened with Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, an unaccompanied choral work written in 1907 when he was still, in most regards, a conventional, post-Romantic composer. The poem by the nineteenth-century Swiss poet and historical novelist Conrad Ferdinand Meyer combines the song of the angels that announced the birth of the Christ Child with the grim reality of human existence. It nonetheless ends on an optimistic note: a royal race bearing flaming swords vanquishes the darkness to a blaze of trumpets. Quite an amazing theme for the young Schoenberg, who was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna in 1874.
James Burton, conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the BSO’s choral director, led the performance. The choir’s sound is rich and polished, and the singers were responsive to Burton’s every gesture. Most impressive were the loud passages that resounded through the hall and the precision of the fugal passages. Each repetition of the refrain – ‘Peace, peace on Earth!’ – sounded as if it had indeed dropped from the heavens. The chorus’ sound was especially warm when they sang of humanity’s noble rescuers. For all of its expansiveness, however, Friede auf Erden, is an intimate, conversational work, an aspect lost at times in the vast space.
Guerrero led an impassioned account of the Beethoven. A commanding presence on the podium, he conducts with a panther-like intensity manifested physically through his intense gaze and fierce, jabbing arm movements. There was nonetheless a buoyancy to his interpretation, especially in the sprightly scherzo which bristled with energy. The Adagio was a solemn hymn, its refined grandeur due in no small part to the stunning clarity of the string playing. Equally impressive was the earthy, gutsy sound the cellos produced when they dug their bows into their strings in the fourth movement.
Bass Mark Robinson silenced the chaos with a booming voice that dwarfed those of the other soloists. For all of its power, it was the evenness of his radiant column of sound that was most impressive. After an especially brisk and brilliant Turkish March, tenor Nicholas Phan delivered a stentorian account of his spirited solo, which under normal circumstances would have been considered heroic, as indeed it was. But, as with the crystalline-voiced soprano Nicole Cabell and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, Phan was a mere mortal up against a voice of Schillerian grandeur and scale.
Singing from memory, the TFC was splendid. Their focus and intensity were palatable. Never mind the soprano who jumped a beat at one of the many treacherous entrances. (I too was holding my breath in anticipation of Guerrero’s downbeat, and my heart went out to her.) The entrances of the great fugue were glorious, as was the choir’s sound when singing en masse at full volume. Unfolding in majestic strokes, the finale reached its frenzied, triumphant conclusion in a slow-release explosion of joy that brought the audience to its feet.