Andris Nelsons and the BSO launch Tanglewood 2022 with stars, premieres and 20th-century classics

United StatesUnited States Tanglewood 2022 [2]: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts. (RP)

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Andris Nelsons (piano) and  the BSO © Hilary Scott

8.7.2022 – Opening Night at Tanglewood: Jack Canfield (baritone), Yuja Wang (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor).

Bernstein – ‘Opening Prayer’
Liszt – Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat major
StravinskyThe Rite of Spring

9.7.2022 – Symphony concert: Nicole Cabell (soprano), Aaron Diehl (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor).

Carlos Simon – Motherboxx Connection
Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op.24
Ellington – New World A-Coming, for piano and orchestra (arr. Maurice Peress)
Gershwin – An American in Paris

10.7.2022 – Symphony concert: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor).

Rachmaninoff – Vocalise, Op.34 No.14 (arr. orchestra), Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44
Helen Grime – Trumpet Concerto: night-sky-blue (US premiere)

The stars were aligned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s trio of concerts, conducted by music director Andris Nelsons, that opened its summer residency at Tanglewood. Apart from the last-minute cancellation of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet due to personal reasons, everything went off without a hitch, which is no small feat in the summer of 2022.

Bernstein’s Opening Prayer for baritone and orchestra, which he composed for the reopening of Carnegie Hall in 1986, began the first concert. It starts with the sounds of brass, before segueing into a lovely Bernstein melody played by the enticing combination of oboe and harp. The baritone enters at the close of the work with a Biblical text that begins ‘The Lord bless thee, and keep thee’, sung here by the fine young baritone Jack Canfield.

‘Opening Prayer’ was to have been the curtain raiser for Thibaudet performing Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety: Symphony No.2 for piano and orchestra, a work the pianist has long championed. In his place, Yuja Wang appeared and performed Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1. The intended thematic and musical flow of the program was unavoidably altered, but one couldn’t help thinking it was for the better. Wang’s exciting performance of the Liszt was the perfect counterpart to Nelsons and the BSO’s thrilling account of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Andris Nelsons (conductor), Yuja Wang (piano) and the BSO © Hilary Scott

In the Liszt, Wang mesmerized with her virtuosity, especially in the concerto’s emotional and dynamic extremes. At her loudest, the sounds she drew from the piano were demonic in volume and intensity, while in the delicate, graceful passages her playing evoked fairy wings lightly brushing the keys. For an encore, Wang performed Vladimir Horowitz’s Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s Carmen. Wang’s fingers flew across the keyboard at an incredible speed as she played those wonderful melodies. There are few artists active today who can top Wang’s potent combination of glamour, virtuosity and musical integrity.

If the delicate ring of the triangle had been the prevailing percussion sound in the Liszt, it was replaced by the thunderous boom of the bass drum resounding throughout the Koussevitzky Music Shed in The Rite of Spring. Riots broke out at its 1911 Paris premiere, and when the police were called, Stravinsky left the theater. In this performance, it was the lyrical passages, however, that linger in the mind, as opposed to the frenetic rhythms that so irked some people a century ago. It was if Nelsons and BSO were providing the opportunity to experience this monumental work afresh, stripped of a century of preconceived notions that had been plastered on it.

Mid-twentieth-century American music was on tap for the second concert, with the exception of the first work on the program, Carlos Simon’s Motherboxx Connection, originally conceived as part of Tales: A Folklore Symphony, commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and the Michigan Symphony Orchestra. Simon reworked the first movement as a standalone work that he called Motherboxx Connection, and this was its first performance.

The short piece was inspired by the heroic creatures in the work of Black Kirby, a collaborative entity of John ‘Pitch’ Jennings and Stacey ‘Blackstar’ Robinson, who take their inspiration from the work of comic book creator Jack Kirby, developer of the superhero Black Panther. The Motherboxx is a living computer, an all-knowing entity that serves as a technological ‘mother land’ where black bodies merge and depart in an imaginary conception of the black diaspora.

The second concert opened with the blare of brass, as had the first, but that is where any similarities between Bernstein’s ‘Opening Prayer’ and Simon’s Motherboxx Connection ended. There is no time for reflection while listening to Simon’s brief, exhilarating work; one can only absorb the energy and kaleidoscopic array of color. Simon’s stated aim was to create music that projected an overall mood of strength and heroism. With the orchestra hurling thunder bolts of sound at the audience and the joyous peals of chimes and bells, he did just that. We will be hearing Motherboxx Connection again soon, judging from the audience’s response.

The lolling melodies and aura of nostalgia in Barber’s Knoxville-Summer of 1915 followed. Nelsons led a performance of this beloved work that never stinted on the lyricism but was remarkably robust and forthright. Soprano Nicole Cabell sang with luscious tone and a sense of wonder, but the words were mostly unintelligible. Unable to delight in James Agee’s image-rich prose, one was left to enjoy a beautiful tone poem.

Duke Ellington composed New World A-Coming for piano and orchestra in 1943. He styled it a tone-parallel, which was his term for what is generally known as a tone or symphonic poem. The title of the work comes from a social history of Harlem by journalist Roi Ottley entitled New Day A-Coming: Inside Black America. Ellington, a student of the Afro-American experience, depicted a part of that journey in New World A-Coming.

Nelson and the BSO infused New World A-Coming with swing and passion, and pianist Aaron Diehl played with poise, perfection and panache. It was a classy performance that teemed with sounds reflecting that bygone era when Harlem was synonymous with an unprecedented artistic flowering of imagination by Afro-American artists. Diehl returned for an encore which he did not announce, but it was perhaps an improvisation or one of his own compositions. Brief snippets of melody coursed through the work, as Diehl held the audience spellbound with his playing.

The BSO has personality, and it shone in the last work on the program, Gershwin’s An American in Paris. In terms of energy and orchestral color, it was the perfect counterpart to Simon’s Motherboxx Connection. Car horns honked and brass rang out in Gershwin’s evocation of Paris, and it was an opportunity for the orchestra’s soloists to shine, none more so than trumpeter Michael Martin with his liquid tone and jaunty style. Gershwin, as does Simon, knew how to create energy and excitement in music.

The third and final concert of the weekend took place on a perfect summer day. Rather than brass fanfares, it began with a mere shimmer of sound as the BSO performed Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise in his arrangement for orchestra. As he had throughout the prior two concerts, Associate Concertmaster Alexander Velinzon drew the most beautiful sounds imaginable from his violin as he caressed one of Rachmaninoff’s finest melodies.

At the core of the program was the US premiere of Helen Grime’s Trumpet Concerto, night-sky-blue with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist. As had Simon, Grime addressed the audience and provided insights into what she sought to achieve in her concerto. She described Hardenberger as the ‘world’s best trumpeter’ and expressed delight that he had approached her to create a work for him. Conceived and composed during the height of the pandemic, Grime found inspiration in Vida Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson’s White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, England.

Grime conceived night-sky-blue as an exercise in lyricism. Nocturnal in character, the work is full of unrest and darkness, but it also contains moments of unsurpassable beauty and luminosity. There are ponderous passages and rhythmic motifs in the brass that sound like the clack of a telegraph, but then there are sounds as light and as delicate as fireflies dancing in the dark, or moments of pure ecstasy in which Grime captured, whether intentionally or not, the brilliance of a meteor shower.

Hardenberger entered this mysterious world playing a motif with his trumpet muted. These notes, seemingly simple, later expanded into flights of fancy in which Hardenberger displayed his consummate mastery of the instrument. It is subtle music, however, even for the soloist, who is more often called upon to usher in a change of mood or texture than brilliant virtuosic outbursts.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.3 brought the BSO’s weekend of music making to an end. Much of the music programmed had been composed in mid-century America, and so it was with Rachmaninoff’s final symphony, which he wrote in the span of a year from May 1935 to June 1936. He had left Russia in 1917 after the revolution, never to return.

The Third Symphony, as with Ellington’s New World A-Coming and Gershwin’s American in Paris, are works that feel like the America of that time. There are no nostalgic musings in the symphony, which accounted in a large part for its unpopularity. Audiences wanted the familiar soaring melodies and prevailing sentimental, almost melancholy mood that Rachmaninoff had mastered. Critics demanded something even more daring.

Nelsons took a measured approach to the score. The cellos’ entry in the first movement came almost as a surprise. In the first section of the second movement, a classic Rachmaninoff melody was played with great delicacy and emotion by strings, horns and harps. The concluding section of the movement increased in urgency, which built steadily to the brilliant ending that brought the audience to its feet. For this critic, at least, there was not that much of a leap from Gershwin to Rachmaninoff, especially in these performances by the BSO.

One of the most amazing things about the three concerts was that there was no traffic congestion whatsoever. People got to Tanglewood early for all three concerts and spread their picnics out on the lawn. That was something that they couldn’t do en masse for two years. Such halcyon days with the glorious sounds of the BSO are treasured now more than ever.

Rick Perdian

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