Tanglewood Festival - 75th Anniversary Concert
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man12 [3.30]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
On the town: Three dance episodes12 [11.15]
Selections from The Great American Songbook
Over the rainbow [Arlen & Harburg]
Shall we dance? [Rodgers & Hammerstein]
Ol’ man river [Kern & Hammerstein]13 [11.14]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Concerto in D, Hob.XIII:11: 2nd and 3rd movements45 [10.58]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
String Quartet No 1, Op.11: Andante cantabile46 [7.49]
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908)
Carmen Fantasy, Op.2547 [13.28]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse78 [13.51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op.8079 [23.20]
see end of review for performer details
rec. Tanglewood, 14 July 2012
extras: The History of Tanglewood [6.18]: John Williams on Tanglewood [2.25]
C MAJOR 713304 BLU-RAY [112.00]
Commemorative concerts tend, by their very nature, to be a mixed bag of items, and the performances assembled here cover a very wide range from the exciting to the toe-curlingly dreadful. Part of the problem may have been the need to cater for contributions from three different orchestras - although many of the personnel of the Boston Pops are clearly and visibly the same players as those seen later in the Boston Symphony. The items included here also feature six different directors.
We begin with two items from American composers who loomed large in the early days of the Tanglewood Festival: Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. These items are performed by the Boston Pops players, and it is unfortunate that we are not given anything more substantial than a couple of lightweight numbers in the shape of the ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man and the suite that Bernstein cobbled together from his film score On the town. Neither works represent the composers at their best or most imaginative, and neither are particularly well performed here. I am not sure why the trumpeters and timpanist in the Copland Fanfare were asked to play standing up, but the results in terms of brass tuning do not sound very secure. It is bad enough that the audience applauds after each of the two first short movements of the Bernstein suite without the conductor compounding the offence by launching into the disproportionately long final movement - over twice the length of the first two ‘episodes’ combined - without waiting for the audience applause to die down.
What follows afterwards is difficult to describe in polite terms - it is simply embarrassingly awful. We are given three songs from various American musicals conducted by John Williams and sung by James Taylor. I know that there is a type of American ‘Broadway’ singing that seems to be popular in the States, featuring cabaret-style singers treating the tunes and the words like a sort of Transatlantic Sprechstimme, but at the very least the best of these singers bring a sense of dramatic involvement and timing which can compensate for their lack of innate vocal skills. With the basically pop-based Taylor we get no sense of interpretation at all; indeed the presence of what looks suspiciously like a small transistor in his left ear leaves one with the impression that he is being surreptitiously cued with the words as he sings. Sometimes these words almost seem to take him by surprise. Of the three songs we are given here, two were written for some of the greatest of all American musical stage singers. Taylor simply pales into insignificance when judged by the standards of Judy Garland and Paul Robeson - let alone Joyce DiDonato’s performance of Over the rainbow at the last night of the 2013 Proms. He doesn’t have the range to cover all the notes, his sense of rhythm is practically non-existent and his deadpan delivery of the words hardly serves to compensate for his frequently flat singing and shortness of breath. I mean no disrespect to the singers at my local Welsh pub, but I have heard better singing and interpretation than this in karaoke sessions from amateur performers there. As a tribute to the anniversary of Tanglewood this is simply totally inadequate, whatever the commercial considerations may have been.
After this things improve with a very romantic reading of two movements of the Haydn concerto, but one wonders what happened to the first movement. The rather strait-laced finale decidedly lacks the joy, sparkle and bounce that one associates with the composer. Yo-Yo Ma dispenses with a conductor altogether for his performance of the Tchaikovsky Andante cantabile. Although one recognises the manner in which he interacts with the players around him in an almost chamber-music style, the fact that he is sitting with his back to the majority of the orchestra - and in any event has hardly any moment where his hands are free to direct the other instrumentalists - leads inevitably to points where counterpoint phrases in the orchestra just sound tentative. Andris Nelsons joins the student players of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra to direct Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy with Anne-Sophie Mutter. Something appears to go wildly awry with the soloist’s tuning in the final section and although the performance has plenty of fire it lacks ease and polish in too many places.
It is something of a relief when the Boston Symphony Orchestra finally take the stage for a performance of Ravel’s choreographic poem La Valse, the first really substantial piece on this bitty programme. Andris Nelsons gets a fine performance from the players, but although it has lots of life it lacks any sense of mystery and the final bars are frenetic indeed. The booklet informs us that Nelsons is taking over as principal conductor of the orchestra in the coming season. Doubtless he will be able to obtain more atmospheric results from them as the result of more intimate acquaintance. The concert concludes with the Beethoven Choral Fantasia, with Peter Serkin delivering a very stern account of the long opening improvisation which could do with more freedom and sheerly romantic panache. The soloists, drawn from former and current members of the Tanglewood Music Center, are not an ideally balanced team, with the women much stronger in tone than the men. David Zinman, who takes over as conductor for this final item, does not really hammer home the final chords in the peremptory Beethoven manner.
Although it was clearly a foregone conclusion that this celebratory concert would be televised, its preservation on DVD and Blu-Ray is a more problematic issue. What is missing from this video is made clear by one of the two supplementary documentaries, a dismally short seven-minute survey of the history of Tanglewood which only serves to illustrate the distinguished story of the Festival itself and the major works which have received performances there. One notes with interest that Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was specifically commissioned to celebrate the opening of the first permanent hall on the Tanglewood site. Given the presence of the chorus for this celebratory concert the omission of this relatively short work from the programme is indicative of the missed opportunities here. The second documentary, a brief personal note by John Williams, is even shorter - under three minutes - but still finds room for an erroneous claim by the celebrated composer that Britten’s Peter Grimes received its world première at Tanglewood, a statement that is simply untrue; although it did receive its American première under Bernstein there.
Those who were present at this concert will be delighted with the opportunity to have this disc as a souvenir. Those who were not may well find themselves underwhelmed by the contents. The 75th anniversary of Tanglewood deserved a better and more considered celebration than this; maybe they’ll do better in five years’ time.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Maybe they’ll do better in five years’ time.
Beethoven: Peter Serkin (piano) Eudora Brown and Emalie Savoy (sopranos), Paula Murphy (mezzo), William Ferguson and Alex Richardson (tenors), Richard Ollarsaba (bass), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
Bernstein: Boston Pops Orchestra/Keith Lockhart (On the town), James Taylor, John Williams (Songbook)
Copland: Boston Pops Orchestra/Keith Lockhart
Haydn: Emanuel Ax (piano) Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra/Stefan Asbury
Ravel: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin) Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Sarasate: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin) Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Tchaikvosky: Yo-Yo Ma (cello) Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
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