At Tanglewood: When the organ goes digital

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LENOX — Some sounds seemed to be coming from outer space, some from the bowels of the earth.

There was a distinct space-age look and sonority in the digital organ that Cameron Carpenter brought to Tanglewood Friday night for his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His bio proclaimed that the soloist "is smashing the stereotypes of organists and organ music," and 'twas true, 'twas true.

Under French conductor Stephane Deneve, who surely makes the BSO sound good, Carpenter played in two French works, Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani, and Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, the "Organ Symphony." Front and nearly center in the Poulenc, his menacingly black, boxy Marshall & Ogletree touring organ dominated the Shed stage.

The sound? Well, in mid-range and at mid-volume, it could have come from a traditional pipe organ. The booming pedal tones, however, seemed to portend subterranean catastrophe, while the upper notes sometimes suggested mice at play. Via huge loudspeakers, the disembodied tones seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once: not a recipe for connection with a symphony orchestra.

The Poulenc concerto, never before performed at Tanglewood, is a somber, almost devotional work, opening and closing with a Bach-like toccata to affirm its earnest intent. Only partly because of the technology, the solo part veered toward flamboyance.

The organ (along with a piano) is just another instrument in the Saint-Saens symphony, and here the focus was on the superb playing Deneve drew from the BSO. The slow section was a marvel of transparency and quiet eloquence, though the pretensions to Beethoven-like grandeur in the finale, with the organ pealing madly away, were almost comical.

The program opened with a luminous performance of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, which segued directly into the Poulenc. Deneve announced that the unlikely pairing recalled the friendship between the two composers.

The distinctively barbered Carpenter, who is also a composer, stayed on for a post-BSO demonstration of his instrument in the Shed.

In a Verdi-Puccini program Saturday night, the mighty bass-baritone Bryn Terfel met his match in vocal firepower in soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, the star Tosca to his star Scarpia.

Act I of "Tosca" climaxed a BSO sampler of the Italian masters' works. It also showed that there are places for flamboyance, and one of them is the opera stage. As Terfel portrayed the sinister police chief as a sucker for Tosca's wiles, Radvanovsky hurled thunderbolts of sound and churned around the Shed stage like a madwoman.

If over the top, the show of jealousy in a concert performance lit up Puccini's tale of amorous and political intrigue.

The BSO called on Bramwell Tovey, director of the Vancouver Symphony and an old hand at opera, to conduct the evening-length snapshot of the Italian repertoire. He had the orchestra sounding as if it played the music every day.

The rest of the strong "Tosca" cast upheld its end, with Brandon Jovanovich, a late substitute, as an ardent, conflicted Cavaradossi. John Del Carlo was the Sacristan and Ryan Speedo Green the Angelotti.

The Verdi half of the program began with a fiery account of the "Force of Destiny" Overture, followed by the Stabat Mater from the Four Sacred Pieces. John Oliver's Tanglewood Festival Chorus, though perhaps too large for so intimate a piece, nevertheless sang it with opulence of sound and full devotional fervor.

Terfel, abetted by Martha Babcock's cello solo, used his powerful voice to wrenching effect in King Philip's monologue from "Don Carlo" and followed that with comic effect in the fat knight's "Honor" monologue from "Falstaff."

To conclude the weekend, Ludovic Morlot, director of the Seattle Symphony, returned Sunday afternoon with a program introducing John Luther Adams' "The Light That Fills the World." Nothing much happens in the 14-minute evocation of a slowly shifting Alaskan landscape, nor is anything meant to happen.

But the icy sheets of sound, and the bold sweep of Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 as a counterweight, showed why Morlot is one of Tanglewood's most successful conducting graduates. The BSO's playing wasn't always neat, but who cares when music flies off the stage like this?

Between pieces, Pinchas Zukerman gave a suave, imaginatively shaped solo performance in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3.


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