Yo-Yo Ma and a Holiday for Horns at Tanglewood

United StatesUnited States Tanglewood [8] – Schumann, Brahms: Richard Sebring, Michael Winter, Rachel Childers and Jason Snider (horns), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Boston Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, 18.8.2019. (RP)

Yo-Yo Ma (cello), François-Xavier Roth (conductor) & the BSO © Hilary Scott

Schumann – Conzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra Op.86; Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129

Brahms – Serenade No.1 in D major Op.11

Instead of the solo horn call in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto that opened the prior evening’s concert, the sound of four horns reverberated through the Tanglewood Music Shed to launch this concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of François-Xavier Roth. A quartet made up of members of the orchestra’s horn section – Richard Sebring, Michael Winter, Rachel Childers and Jason Snider – stood front and center for this, the first-ever performance of Schumann’s Conzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra at Tanglewood.

Schumann thought it one of his best pieces, a product of the spurt of creative energy during 1847-48 that he considered his ‘most fruitful year’. It’s an exuberant work; the first movement is designated lebhaft, and Schumann ups the ante in the final one by entitling it sehr lebhaft, or very lively. As if to drive the point home, the work opens with two fortissimo chords. It’s not all unbridled excitement, however, as the slow middle movement has broad, beautiful melodies exploring the horn’s more introspective qualities.

Horns and Tanglewood’s open-air ambience go hand-in-glove. Playing in unison, the four sounded as one; as an ensemble, their individual sounds melded into a lustrous, bronze sheen as they reveled in the intricate interplay Schumann had devised for them. Particularly impressive was the ease with which Sebring dispatched the high-flying phrases Schumann composed for the first horn.

It wasn’t four horns playing Schumann or the exceptionally fine summer weather that made this concert a sell-out, but rather Yo-Yo Ma performing Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Ma has amazed for decades, but the passage of time has only increased the depth of his relationship to music. If anything, the emotions that he conveys through his instrument course more freely. The concerto overflows with melodies that Ma spun with his accustomed elegance, but he could also dig into the strings of his cello to create sounds that were earthy and gutsy, startling in their intensity.

It’s not just the melodies that beguile in Schumann’s concerto, but the interplay between soloist and orchestra which his wife Clara described in her diary as ‘wholly ravishing’. Ma, Roth and the players crafted a musical dialogue that would have undoubtedly pleased Clara. One of the most exquisite moments came in the second movement, where Ma and the first cello exchanged a melody to the delicate pizzicato string accompaniment. When the solo flute entered, it was a moment of beauty that was breathtaking in its simplicity and delicacy.

The weather did not intrude upon the performance, as it had the night before. In the quieter passages, there was absolute stillness from the thousands who sat spellbound by Ma’s playing. One listener, however, seemed unable to control him- or herself. A bird chirped lustily throughout the first movement, a touch that Schumann, to say nothing of Messiaen, would have undoubtedly appreciated.

Roth’s mastery of musical flow and detail was ever present, but in the final work on the program, Brahms’s Serenade in D, it was front and center. The BSO transformed itself into a chamber orchestra, playing with a lightness that was as impressive as its loudest forte. The principal hornist, James Sommerville, had sat out Schumann’s Conzertstück, but the Brahms was his moment to shine. His impressive playing in the Serenade, combined with that of his four associates in Conzertstück, made this concert into a holiday for horns, a certain aspect of which made an impact on one member of the audience in particular.

During the intermission, a woman from Nanjing, China, expressed her surprise that a woman could play the French Horn to my companion and me (he thought she approached us because he was wearing a cap from Beijing). She explained that she had always assumed a brass player had to be big, strong and male. I explained that it was more a question of embouchure, breath control, musical talent and dedication, as opposed to gender. Rachel Childers, the first female brass player in the BSO, had clearly made an impression on this woman and opened up previously unimagined musical possibilities for girls in her mind’s eye.

Rick Perdian

For more information on the 2019 Tanglewood season, click here.

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