Adès and Tetzlaff soar in Sibelius with BSO; a mixed array of modern works from TMC

July 23, 2018 at 11:17 am

By Lawrence Budmen

Christian Tetzlaff performed Sibelius's Violin Concerto with Thomas Ades conducting the BSO Sunday at Tanglewood. Photo: Hilary Scott

Christian Tetzlaff performed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Thomas Adès conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra Sunday at Tanglewood. Photo: Hilary Scott

Thomas Adès has long won acclaim as one of England’s most gifted composers. But his position as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic associate allows him to display his considerable talents as conductor, pianist and contemporary music programmer.

On Sunday afternoon he took the podium at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed to conduct the BSO in music from his opera Powder Her Face and two works by Sibelius.

Adès’ 1995 satirical opera Powder Her Face depicts the rise and fall of the notorious Duchess of Argyll Ethel Margaret Campell (1912-1993). In 2017 Adès devised a suite for full orchestra highlighting six sections from the opera’s original chamber score.

Adès manages to create a thoroughly contemporary soundscape that harkens back to the jazz age. Wails from the brass and the distinctive sound of the saxophone set the stage for a mock tango that even quotes a melody by tango master Carlos Gardel. A series of violin solos, elegantly played by associate concertmaster Alexander Velinzon, suggest the perfumed world of an upper crust salon. Chimes announce the duchess’s wedding march, which resounds in ominous rather than celebratory tones. The cerebral waltz brings more than a whiff of Ravel’s Valse Nobles et Sentimentales.

The large-scale opulence of Adès’ orchestral scoring culminates in a send up of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and a return to the witty take off of the tango. Adès’ precise beat and rhythmic definition drew outstanding playing from the full ensemble which was in peak form. The extended harp part was articulated with finesse by Jessica Zhou and the unison brass made a terrific racket.

Christian Tetzlaff was the exceptional soloist in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Tetzlaff is an artist with the ability to revitalize even the most familiar repertoire and his was anything but a once-over-lightly traversal of Sibelius’ showpiece. In the first movement, Tetzlaff’s soaring tone and transparent lines and bow strokes made every note sound with absolute clarity. The violinist’s sound was pure and consistently imbued with a changing array of colors and dynamic shades. He was unafraid to bend a phrase and intonation was right on the mark, even in the instrument’s highest range when he attacked the cadenza with abandon.

Tetzlaff shaped the yearning melody of the Adagio in long, emotionally expressive phrasing. The final Allegro was taken at a brisk pace with Tetzlaff’s bow bouncing on the strings in clipped rhythm. He breezed through the treacherous double stops while remaining attendant to every nuance and variation of volume and shape.

Adès was a full partner, in synch with Tetzlaff and drawing a sumptuous orchestral backdrop. The warmth and sweetness of the wind playing was particularly excellent. A long standing, cheering ovation (even by Tanglewood standards) brought Tetzlaff repeatedly back to the stage for well deserved curtain calls.

Following intermission, Adès led Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. This was very British Sibelius with the music’s Nordic chill basked in warmth and finely variegated hues. The opening horn calls emerged with mellow expression and the full sonority of the string section engulfed the shed. Adès’ tempos were brisk without feeling rushed and the ensemble played with corporate dynamism and energy.

The opening figure of the finale was tautly controlled, initially in the violas and spreading through the string section with every line transparent and audible. Adès shaped the broad chorale melody with a touch of angularity – a reminder that this was a 20th century score.

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On Sunday morning Tanglewood Music Center fellows presented a concert of mostly contemporary scores in Seiji Ozawa Hall. An opening tribute to the recently deceased British composer-conductor Oliver Knussen (a former member of the TMC faculty) brought veteran cellist Norman Fischer to the stage for a solo turn in Knussen’s Eccentric Melody. Knussen’s modernist vignette is replete with twists, turns and shifts of harmony and tempo. Fischer displayed masterful command of Knussen’s thorny instrumental writing. He acknowledged Knussen with a gesture toward the heavens as he took bowed.

Hurry Up and Wait by TMC composition fellow Scott Lee is chockfull of busy, darting figures and fastand-furious keyboard writing. Clarinet riffs perk up the ears and the exposed clarinet writing was terrifically rendered by Kamalia Freyling. Although skillfully contrived, the score adds up to considerably less than the sum of its better parts.

Les Citations by French master Henri Dutilleux is scored for the unusual combination of oboe, harpsichord, double bass and percussion. The delicately scored oboe lines mix with harpsichord and marimba, creating unique instrumental textures and effects. Dutilleux utilizes the bass as both a percussive and melodic instrument. In the work’s second section, the oboe riffs with the wild agility of a clarinet while the bass and percussion engage in a jazz jam session. After a final huge flourish, percussion fades to silence. Oboist Liam Boisset’s lovely tone and dexterity dominated the well coordinated performance.

Brett Dean’s Voices of Angels (for piano and four string players) opens with buzzing sounds from the strings. The thirty-minute work calls for both pianist and bass player to hit their strings with a mallet along the way. The sterile, incoherent writing seems to lead nowhere, causing much ado about not very much. Cooly received, the audience did not recall the players to the stage.

American iconoclast Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, Parts I and II is more theater than concert score. Written in 1971 following the Attica prison uprising in upstate New York, the work’s first part utilizes the text of a letter written by inmate Sam Melville who was killed in the final confrontation. Melville’s repeated words ultimately proved more powerful than Rzewski’s relentless rhythmic figures although the twenty-piece ensemble adds more color to Rzewski’s original monochromatic chamber version. A chorale melody is considerably more effective as background to the words of inmate Richard X. Clark upon his release.

Veteran theater and television actor David Garrison projected a wide plethora of emotions as the narrator. Garrison was especially potent in tracing Melville’s seemingly calm words from normalcy to an emotional collapse.

The outlier on the program was Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F. At first sounding wiry and sharp, first violin David Bernat’s tone glistened in a profound Andante, bringing out the somber undertow beneath the bright surface. Violinist Gregory Gennaro, violist Ji Hye Han and cellist Hana Cohon captured the slightly off-kilter lilt of the Haydnesque Menuetto and the players conveyed the wit of the pauses and modulations in the Allegro finale.

The Tanglewood Festival continues with Stefan Asbury and TMC conducting fellows conducting the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Bernstein’s Facsimile, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 and the premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s In America with TMC vocal fellows as soloists  8 p.m. Monday, July 23 at Seiji Ozawa Hall in Lenox, Massachusettsw  bso.org

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