LENOX — The Tanglewood concert on the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 7, provided a wonderful variety of music, from the delicate shimmer of strings to the heart-stopping loveliness of a double concerto to the thunderous power of a large orchestra in full flood.
We began with a new composition by Thomas Adès, an English composer of great distinction, especially well-known in the United Kingdom. His parents are accomplished intellectuals. His unusual last name is of Syrian Jewish origin. He has recently begun an extended relationship as Artistic Partner with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position created especially for him. Adès conducted the whole program, which featured a very well-known composition by another English composer of a hundred years earlier.
Adès is a very talented composer and pianist. Conducting does not seem entirely natural to him, and he was not able to summon the orchestra’s normal precision under its own music director, with whom they have, of course, worked for many years.
The opening piece, “Shanty – Over the Sea,” composed by Adès in 2020, follows in the tradition of musical compositions that celebrate the seas and oceans surrounding Great Britain, including those by Felix Mendelssohn, Frederick Delius, Edward Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. It is written for a small string orchestra and presents shifting shapes and textures, marked by frequent glissandos and propelled by the insistent rhythm of plucked strings. It evokes the shanty or sailors' song, heard through a haze and at the same time the constantly changing surface of the sea, fading ultimately into silence. It is a work that should be heard again.
At the age of 23, Wolfgang Amadè Mozart was already a fully formed artist. With over 300 works behind him, he travelled frequently across Europe, performing for nobility, collecting gifts of monetary worth (snuffboxes were a frequent item of exchange, being both small and valuable) and at the same time soaking up musical traditions and styles like a sponge. On one of these trips his regular traveling companion (his father) was unable to join him, so his mother went along. In Paris, where he played for wealthy patrons and presented newly composed symphonies at concert series, he encountered tragedy, for his mother fell ill and died. As though the blow were not enough, his father blamed him for the death.
Mozart did, however, bring back one particular treasure from this trip, one of infinitely greater value than a snuffbox: the Sinfonia Concertante in Eb for Violin and Viola, K. 364, a kind of amalgam of symphony and concerto that he wrote in Paris, where such works were popular. It marks a significant milestone in the development of the young composer, for it displays a mastery of technique and a depth of expression that were to become the hallmark of Mozart’s style from this time forward. The slow movement of this work is of heavenly beauty, evoking a duet between two partners, singing each other’s songs and gradually moving closer together until they intertwine in ecstatic unity.
Throughout the performance the soloists Leonidas Kavakos, violin, and Antoine Tamestit, viola, were perfectly in sync with each other and with the orchestra, with whom they played the full-orchestra sections as well as their solo passages, as is historically appropriate. Maynard Solomon has written about the instrumental music of Mozart’s maturity that it represents “a special kind of musical beauty, one that thenceforth came to exemplify the idea of superlative beauty itself.”
After an intermission that featured a spectacular and perfectly timed downpour, the stage was filled almost to overflowing with an orchestra of 17 woodwinds, 15 brass instruments, seven percussion players wielding 16 instruments, including, most spectacularly, 6 timpani, 2 harps, an organ and about 70 strings, including 10 double basses.
This array was for Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” a suite of seven movements depicting the (then known) seven planets and the characters assigned to them in astrology (rather than those of ancient Greek myth). The movements are arranged not in some kind of natural order (distance from the sun, for example) but put together for maximum musical impact, mostly tending towards the alternation of quiet or delicate sections and those of great power and the fullest possible sound. At the end, the orchestra is joined (offstage) by a wordless female chorus intoning an ethereal harmony that fades away into the timeless span of the universe.
If some of the music of “The Planets” sounds familiar to you, it is because its powerfully evocative score has been imitated, borrowed, pilfered, and plagiarized for film scores, television series and computer games more or less since those modern media were invented.
What: Thomas Adès conducts Thomas Adès, Mozart, and Holst featuring Leonidas Kavakos, violin, Antoine Tamestit, viola, and Lorelei Ensemble
Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox
When: Sunday, Aug. 7
Program: Thomas Adès' "Shanty — Over the Sea," Mozart's Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola and Gustav Holst's "The Planets."