Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra goes to the summit with Strauss

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LENOX — The party started the trek up the mountain at dawn, took a wrong path, reached the summit in glory, got drenched in a thunderstorm on the way down, and reached home in triumph at dark.

It's the story of Richard Strauss' "Alpine Symphony," of course. But it's also, in a rough way, a parable of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra's season, which concluded Sunday afternoon with Strauss' nearly hour-long orchestral monster. The student orchestra, too, playing eight weeks of varied but challenging repertoire, embarked on a fraught journey to the heights and came through in glory.

Strauss verges on self-parody in this tone poem, an incident-by-incident recall of a mountaineering expedition he took as a boy. The self-glorification of his "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life") is not far off (nor is the soppy home-life saga of his "Symphonia domestica"). From Wagner, Siegfried's horn calls also seem to resonate in the main theme played by the horns.

If it's so bombastic by a composer who wrote so much glorious music, why play the thing?

It's a showpiece for orchestra, that's why. Andris Nelsons knew what he was doing when he programmed and conducted it to follow Paul Lewis' distinguished solo performance in Beethoven's early Piano Concerto No. 3 before intermission. Their collaboration in the concerto breathed a higher air than Strauss' on his mountaintop. It demonstrated how great musicianship can transform less than great Beethoven into a nevertheless great musical experience.

Lewis' glistening runs and chords especially illuminated the long first-movement cadenza, which became at once an example of keyboard brilliance and philosophical depth. Time seemed to stand still in the Largo, an early example of Beethoven's quest for the infinite. Under Nelsons, the orchestra met challenge with challenge, splendor with splendor. Altogether, in the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, the performance was a worthy continuation of a Lewis-Nelsons-TMCO collaboration that began last summer with Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.                                                                                                                                            

Then came Strauss' sumptuously orchestrated descent into — or, perhaps more to the point, ascent to — banality. The playing showcased the TMCO's tremendous strength and versatility after only two months in existence. The sounds ranged from delicate tracery of solos to massive spectacles from an enlarged orchestra.          

Horn calls echoed across a valley, cow bells jangled and a colossal storm shook stage and mountains alike, with raindrops dripping afterward. The musicians took inspiration from the Boston Symphony Orchestra director, who in turn took inspiration from them. Symbiosis, it's called. Or empathy. Or just plain wonderful.                                                                                                                                                      

The sad part is that the ensemble disbanded with this performance, while able to grace many a symphony stage across the country with its skills. This happens every summer, of course, and some players will be invited back to form the nucleus of next year's TMCO. But farewell, good luck and thanks to all. You climbed the mountain.

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