Tanglewood: Of death and transcendence


LENOX -- The Boston Symphony Orchestra dedicated its Tanglewood program yesterday to the memory of Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, who would have conducted it and two other concerts this week if he had lived.

The Spanish-born conductor, a stalwart on the BSO podium, died at 80 on June 11 in Spain. Since 2000 alone, he had logged 133 BSO concerts, averaging three per season at Tanglewood. The dedication aptly described him as "a much beloved presence" at both Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.

Fruehbeck was one of two podium mainstays missing over the weekend. Christoph von Dohnanyi, who was to have led the Friday and Saturday programs, canceled because of sickness in his family.

Though Dohnanyi, 84, was reported to be in good health, the two absences left a sense of a waning era. The feeling was heightened by the death of Lorin Maazel, another veteran conductor with BSO associations, on July 13 at 84.

The three weekend programs remained unchanged but two conductors -- the Austrian Manfred Honeck and the Canadian Jacques Lacombe -- made BSO debuts as replacements. It seemed weirdly appropriate that the major work for the weekend was Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, with its message of death and transcendence.

It fell to Honeck, an experienced Mahlerian who took Dohnanyi's programs, to conduct the Mahler symphony on Saturday night. The performance was unusual, to say the least.

Mahler goes to extremes in this 85-minute monster symphony for orchestra, chorus and two vocal soloists. Honeck went him one better. Fast was faster; slow, slower. Manic was more manic; depressive, more depressive. It shouldn't have worked, and it basically didn't. But in its roller-coaster way, the performance achieved a cumulative grandeur.

In his later works, Mahler faced death with resignation. He was young when he charted the triumphant path to life everlasting in his Second Symphony. After the ups and downs leading to the close, the BSO, Tanglewood Festival Chorus and two soloists hurled out the final paean to eternal life with a force that must have shaken the heavens.

Honeck, the director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, reverted to the orchestral seating of Mahler's time, with the violin sections divided. He made generous use of the slides from note to note in the strings common back then.

Countless inner details illuminated the sound. Mysteries whispered and grotesqueries slithered. Climaxes were cataclysmic. Mezzo Sarah Connolly used her dark, ripe voice to mystical effect in the "Urlicht" (primal light) movement, and Camilla Tilling's shining soprano soared heavenward in the final hymn.

Amid the surprises of tempo and emphasis, the splendor of the BSO's playing carried the performance along, delivering urgency of conception and execution. The BSO plays well for this man.

Friday night's program under Honeck offered a quick trip through small-orchestra repertoire: a short overture, concerto and symphony, and good night.

In Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 (K. 414), English pianist Paul Lewis showed that drama doesn't always come in large packages. This concerto, which can also be played by piano and string quartet, needs an interpreter who knows the uses of understatement and intimacy.

That would be Lewis, whose recital of Schubert's last three sonatas last summer -- transcendent, it was -- remains indelible in memory. His Mozart evoked moonlight in the andante and smiled with gentle humor in the finale.

Honeck opened with a crisp account of Beethoven's "Creatures of Prometheus" Overture and closed with Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony in a spirited performance that aspired to brilliance but fell just short of it.

Yesterday's program was a strange hybrid, a sort of two-headed creature crossing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with chunks from two Verdi opera. Still, the operatic half gave John Oliver's festival chorus, which had seen limited duty in Mahler, a second chance to show its powers.

As replacement conductor, Lacombe had a good operatic grip on the Overture and Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from "Nabucco" and the Triumphal Scene from "Aida." The "Aida" scene doesn't work particularly well in a concert version, but Lacombe was blessed with a strong sextet of soloists, headed by Marjorie Owens as Aida and Elizabeth Bishop as Amneris. If the BSO's playing was sometimes a little scattered, Verdi is not the orchestra's natural element.

In the concerto, Gabriela Montero sounded pressured and blurry as soloist, perhaps because of the afternoon's humidity, and the BSO switched to default mode in the accompaniment. Transcendence had to wait for another day.


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