Wednesday July 25, 2012

LENOX -- Revolution was in the air Monday night at Tanglewood, but it was a revolution only two-thirds won.

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra played an enterprising program of three path-breaking works from the first half of the 20th century. Two long ago made it into the orchestral canon but Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, though worth a visit, will probably always remain an unlovable beast. For the soloist, it also happens to be one of the world's great finger busters.

The 1942 Schoenberg work, with Emanuel Ax intrepid at the keyboard, was sandwiched between Ives' 1912-17 "Three Places in New England" and Stravinsky's 1911 "Petrushka." In the vivid performances in Ozawa Hall, each work sounded not just modern but visionary 70 years or more after composition. All three pieces posed rhythmic hurdles, which seemed no hurdles at all to the performers.

Stefan Asbury, coordinator of the student conducting program, and the student orchestra are always a good match. Under his enthusiastic direction, the playing in the colorful Ives and Stravinsky works was spectacular -- almost too much so in "Petrushka," which became less a ballet than pure orchestral showpiece. Who could resist?

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Student conductor Ken-David Masur guided the orchestra through the knotty Schoenberg concerto with a sure hand while Ax contended with the seemingly inhuman piano part.


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It's strange: Schoenberg admired Brahms, and you can hear Brahms somewhere over the horizon in the later composer's progression of ideas. But as the piece jumps, jerks and jolts over the course of its four sections, admiration doesn't yield to affection. The hard-working soloist, conductor and players were admirable, though, for their clear-eyed attempt to unravel the mysteries. Amid the thickets of notes, Ax's tone never turned percussive.

Ives' quick tour of New England went from the somber recollection of "St. Gaudens," the Civil War monument in Boston Common, to the patriotic mayhem -- clashing bands, "Yankee Doodle" gone wild -- of "Putnam's Camp" in Connecticut, before ending in the quiet haze and nostalgia of "The Housatonic at Stockbridge."

The Stockbridge portrait, which Ives also turned into one of his most touching songs, always evokes a vision of Ives and his bride, Harmony Twichell, strolling the meadows along the river bank. Asbury drew out a particularly luminous string tone for the bit of nature painting.

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Performing the original version of "Petrushka" rather than a suite, Asbury turned on color and energy to the max. The puppet's life, death and mocking reappearance became the stuff of tragedy, but comedy was never far behind. Trumpeter Stuart Stephenson was outstanding amid a corps of outstanding soloists.

Because of the evening dampness, the lawn audience was moved indoors, helping to fill the hall.