Review: BSO pledges allegiance


LENOX -- Was that the fifth of July or the Fourth? Was it the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Boston Pops?

The BSO opened its Tanglewood season Saturday night with an all-American program equally balanced between classical lite and Broadway. In this democracy of styles, show tunes were more equal than the deep thinkers of classical.

Though American music is threaded through the coming weeks, this was the BSO's only venture into pure Americana for the season. The idea was half an evening of short classical pieces boasting BSO origins, and half an evening of old-time Broadway favorites, all of it stapled together with the star-powered singing of Renee Fleming.

Different conductors -- both new to the BSO -- produced unequal results. So did different Flemings. What should have been a gala start for the season was something less.

In the classical half, William Eddins, director of the Edmonton Symphony Orch-
estra, was unable to rouse the spirits slumbering within the Bostonians. Taking over for the second half, veteran stage director Rob Fisher had the orchestra in lively Pops mode -- brassy, pumped up, soupy -- for the show tunes.

For the large, cheering crowd (at a guess, 10,000) on the moonlit evening, Fleming could do no wrong. And indeed, with the help of a microphone, she was in fine, creamy voice for Rogers & Hammerstein and the Gershwins, dancing, shimmying and swaying as if she had been doing this kind of thing all her life - which, she pointed out during chats for the audience, was true: She had begun singing the music in high school.

En route from the Super Bowl to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, with stops in Salzburg and at the Met in between, Fleming looked and sounded in great shape for a 55-year-old opera diva about to debut as an actress in a Williamstown play. (But enough of the cute tilting of the head from side to side, please.)

Still, Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," the evening's major work, was a July Fourth-sized miscalculation. This quiet, childlike piece, based on a text by James Agee, needs to be heard in a more intimate setting than a 5,000-seat open-air pavilion.

Trying to put it across without amplification, Fleming resorted to exaggerated operatic gestures. Her voice was unsteady and sometimes inaudible, and the words consistently unintelligible (this from a seat in the center of the Shed). Tanglewood didn't help matters by keeping the house lights so low that, without X-ray vision, it was impossible to follow the printed text.

The other classical offerings went from Joseph Schwan-
tner's sparkly "Freeflight" to John Adams' madcap "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," with Copland's "Night Thoughts" from "Music for a Great City" and Barber's "Knoxville" in between. It's a strange night when the BSO sounds more at home in Pops repertoire than music it has commissioned or otherwise brought to life.

Yesterday, the BSO revisited the German romantic mainstream with a Brahms-Liszt-Wagner program. It was a bumpy road back to the 19th century.

Neither Garrick Ohlsson, normally one of the most reliable of pianists, nor conductor Asher Fisch, who had been impressive in his 2012 BSO debut, seemed able to hold the pulse of the music for long. The BSO's playing got the job done but seemed generally uncertain and unblended.

Ohlsson's broadly scaled performance of Brahms' vast Piano Concerto No. 2 lacked a connecting line for the changes of tempo of thought. Power and poetry were not enough to cast a consistent spell. Returning from illness, cellist Jules Eskin created magical moments with his extended solos in the andante.

On his own, the Australian-based Asher revived Liszt's once popular "Les Preludes" (think Lone Ranger) and concluded with from a suite from Wagner's "Meistersinger." He had ideas about the music. That may have been the problem. The BSO seemed unable to adapt. The result was often bombast.


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