Nelsons’ Tanglewood Mahler Fifth tops another exciting weekend of music in the Berkshires

United StatesUnited States Tanglewood 2022 [4]: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Lenox. (RP)

Christine George (soprano), Andris Nelsons (conductor) & TMCO © Hilary Scott

23.7.2022 – Symphony concert: Christine Goerke (soprano), Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor).

BerliozThe Death of Cleopatra
Mahler – Symphony No.5

24.7.2022 – Symphony concert: Latonia Moore (soprano), Seong-Jin Cho (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor).

William Grant StillIn Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy
George WalkerLilacs for soprano and orchestra
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major Op.83

It was a nice touch to begin the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert with Andris Nelsons conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Berlioz’s The Death of Cleopatra. Not because of the subject matter, or even the much-anticipated appearance of soprano Christine Goerke, but rather because it was the work of a youthful firebrand performed by some of the finest young musicians from around the world who make up TMCO. Youth celebrating youth, so to speak.

Berlioz didn’t win the Prix de Rome when he entered The Death of Cleopatra in the prestigious competition because the judges were loath to encourage his crazy notions, even though they deemed it the best submission. Far easier to give no prize that year than to award such audacity. Berlioz would win it the following year on his fourth try with a suitably conventional work which he later destroyed.

Undoubtedly, many in the audience came to the concert to hear Goerke, one of the world’s leading dramatic sopranos, sing a seldom performed work which was likewise a bit off the beaten track repertory-wise for her. Goerke has scaled the pinnacle of operatic stardom with her portrays of Wagner and Strauss heroines as well as Puccini’s Turandot. The vocal line of The Death of Cleopatra, which is more often sung by mezzo-sopranos, rests in the middle and lower ranges of her voice. It was, however, a near-perfect vocal fit for her.

Perhaps the highest notes didn’t quite have the thrill needed as they were produced so effortlessly, and there was a passage or two when she struggled to be heard over the churning of the orchestra when singing in her lower range, but these shortcomings were minor compared to the scintillating beauty of her voice, to say nothing of the dramatic intensity of her performance. In the work’s final measures, as the snake’s venom coursed through Cleopatra’s veins, Goerke was mute gasping for breath in rhythm with the music and expiring as the final note in the orchestra sounded. It was a sublime ending both musically and dramatically.

Tanglewood is a special place to hear the music of Mahler due to its setting in the Berkshire Mountains with vast vistas, lush forests, shimmering lakes and all the sounds of nature as an accompaniment. On an extremely warm evening, such as this was, even the light breeze seemed to be part of the performance. It was the ideal setting in which to hear the TMCO perform Mahler’s Fifth. Nature, youth and an inspired interpretation by Nelsons combined to create an unforgettable musical experience.

Mahler’s Symphony No.5 features all the sections of an orchestra and, collectively, the young musicians played with an electrifying energy and created a glorious sound. The string playing in the Adagietto could not have been more luminous and transparent. There were individual contributions, however, that were exceptional, especially from three brass players: trumpeter Shea Kelsay, hornist Nathan Cloeter and trombonist Robyn Smith. People were still talking about them at the next day’s concert.

Seong-Jin Cho (piano), Andris Nelsons (conductor) & BSO © Hilary Scott

The following afternoon, Nelsons returned to the podium with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an equally intriguing and musically satisfying program of works by two long-neglected American composers plus Brahms Piano Concerto No.2. The first of the American pieces was In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy by William Grant Still (1895-1978), considered the ‘Dean of African-American Composers’.

Still was inspired to compose In Memoriam by a newspaper article which reported the first American military death in World War I was that of a Black soldier. Written in 1943, he intended it to be a memorial to all Black soldiers who had served their country, as well as an expression of hope that those fighting in World War II would return to a better America.

Still wanted to be an ‘American Original’ without any reference to race in his musical style, and In Memoriam is reflective of those aspirations. Passages of it were clearly influenced by the style of George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), with whom he studied in Boston, as well Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946); the two men were among the first American composers to incorporate the sounds of the New World into their works. Nelsons and the BSO gave In Memoriam a thoughtful, sensitive reading, notable for the beauty of sound in the work’s most lyrical passages.

The second work was Lilacs for soprano and orchestra by George Walker (1922-2018), which was commissioned by the BSO. Walker has the distinction of being the first Black American composer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996 for Lilacs, which was premiered the same year by soprano Faye Robinson and the BSO led by Seiji Ozawa. It is a setting of selected verses from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d’, an elegy on the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Walker was very much a composer of his time, having studied with Rosario Scalero who was also Samuel Barber’s teacher, and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Like Still, Walker refused to be pigeon-holed stylistically: in Lilacs, the solo soprano line sits upon an ever-shifting complex orchestral texture. Latonia Moore’s sumptuous voice was at its most wondrous in the large leaps that Walker employed in his setting of Whitman’s image-laden text. If textual clarity was not always possible, Moore more than sufficed for that with her expressivity and the beauty of her voice in high notes that bloomed effortlessly.

Seong-Jin Cho was the soloist in the final work on the program, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.2. As with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on the prior evening, the concerto opens with the sound of the brass, although this time horn instead of trumpets. Nelsons led the BSO in an account that captured the myriad sounds and moods that course through the concerto. Especially notable were the first movement’s dark, dramatic passages, the graceful cello solos of the third and the sweep of gypsy flavored melodies in the fourth.

Cho’s playing was marked by delicacy, sensitivity and fleetness, although he didn’t avoid drama and virtuosity when it was required. He was somewhat shy and deferential as he acknowledged the audience’s ovation. With a nod from Nelsons, however, Cho sat down at the piano and played the Sarabande from Handel’s Suite in B-flat as an encore. Soft and graceful, it served as a benediction to another fine weekend of music at Tanglewood.

Rick Perdian

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