Rambling about Tanglewood: To the podium via the drums

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LENOX, MASS. — There aren't many conductors who came out of an orchestra's percussion section but there are a few, says Gustavo Gimeno, who made the switch.

Gimeno, who makes his BSO and Tanglewood debut Sunday afternoon, spent 12 years as principal percussionist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam before trading drumsticks for a baton in 2012. Moving up fast, he's beginning his second year as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg.

"To be honest, from the very first moment when I started my job as an orchestra percussionist in Amsterdam, I went to conservatory to study conducting at the same time," he said. "So, let's say I was very often following rehearsals from my place in the percussion with the score and doing my job."

The attraction, he added in a telephone interview, was "just [being] willing to develop and willing to understand music better I always felt attracted to conducting."

He names Mariss Jansons, Riccardo Chailly and Simon Rattle as predecessors in the move from the back section of an orchestra to the front.

Born 40 years ago in Valencia, Spain, Gimeno (pronounced he-MAY-no) comes to the BSO as the first of three American orchestras with which he will debut in 2016-17. Yet to come are the Chicago and the National of Washington, following the Cleveland and Pittsburgh last year.

The program here consists of shorter works from the early 20th century: Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, Ravel's Piano Concerto No. 2, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (both with soloist Yuja Wang) and Stravinsky's 1919 "Firebird" Suite.

"All have particular worlds of sound and origin but they're still somehow connected," Gimeno commented in easy English. They encompass dance (Stravinsky), jazz (Ravel and Gershwin), a view of the past (Prokofiev) and a view of the future (Stravinsky), he said.

Gimeno, who lives in Amsterdam, became an assistant to Jansons at the Concertgebouw in 2012. Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado also advanced his career. He got a big break when he substituted for Jansons in 2014. His soloist then was pianist Yefim Bronfman in the European premiere of Magnus Lindberg's second piano concerto. It was Bronfman who recommended him to the BSO.

"He's gone from strength to strength very quickly, including a lot of the big European orchestras," said Anthony Fogg, the BSO's artistic administrator.

A testament to love

Soprano Renee Fleming returns Saturday night for her 25th-anniversary appearance, and if past appearances are a guide, her fans will be out in force.

Those who come only to hear a diva will miss out. The program, with Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting the BSO, is intriguing in its own right — in effect, a meditation on mortality. It is anchored by two composers' final works, Strauss' "Four Last Songs" and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony.

Both works are shadowed by death, but in opposite ways. Tchaikovsky's symphony descends into despair — literally at the end, as if sinking into the grave. Strauss' luminous songs offer consolation and transcendence.

The song titles (translated from the German) give the idea: "Springtime," "September," "Going to Sleep" and "At Twilight." The images and moods are twilit, autumnal. There is no story as such; in the face of waning days, an aging couple looks back on a life of loving companionship. In the final song, they wander hand in hand into the twilight as two larks circle overhead.

For those who know their Strauss, a distant quotation of the transfiguration motif from his tone poem "Death and Transfiguration" adds a tender farewell. Though written for soprano, the songs are Strauss speaking to his tempestuous wife, Pauline, a soprano in her earlier years.

Strauss composed these songs at the age of 85 in 1948 and died the next year, never having heard them. It's still debated whether he was a Nazi sympathizer, but in any case he remained in Germany during the war. When he emerged, his rapturous, late-romantic style was out of fashion.

The program opens with Ives' "The Unanswered Question," in which an offstage trumpet insists on posing a mysterious question. The Strauss songs supply an answer: a long life lived in love.

Hear the pipistrelle

The Tanglewood Music Center used to give Berkshire place names to the student ensembles in its string quartet marathon. This year it switched to the animal kingdom for the 15 participants. There were quartets named for well-known Berkshire inhabitants like the coyote and eastern cottontail. Farther afield, there were the American Mink Quartet and the Eastern Pipistrelle Quartet. (Skunks didn't make the cut.)

And what is a pipistrelle? A kind of bat.

This week at Tanglewood

• The Knights with Christina Courtin, vocalist; Gabriel Kahane, electric guitar, piano and voice: 8 p.m., Thursday, July 14. Ozawa Hall. Arrangement of Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changing,' and Cat Stevens' 'The First Cut is The Deepest,' along with Schubert's Symphony No. 5.

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Pinchas Zukerman, conductor and violin: 8 p.m. Friday, July 15. The Shed. An all-Mozart program, including Symphony No. 25.

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor; Renée Fleming, soprano: 8 p.m. Saturday, July 16. The Shed. Ives' 'The Unanswered Question,' Strauss' 'Four Last Songs' and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6.

• Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Wind Ensemble with David J. Martins, conductor: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 17. Ozawa Hall. Works by Dahl, Dukas, Harbison and Salfelder.

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Gustavo Gimeno, conductor; Yuja Wang, piano: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 17. The Shed. Works from the early 20th century: Prokofiev's 'Classical' Symphony, Ravel's Piano Concerto No. 2, Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' and Stravinsky's 1919 'Firebird' Suite.

• Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor; Richard Sebring, horn: 8 p.m. Monday, July 18. Ozawa Hall. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 'Eroica.'

• Francois Leleux, oboe; Lisa Batiashvili, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Lynn Harrell, cello; Emanuel Ax, piano: 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 20. Ozawa Hall. Mozart duets and oboe quartet.


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