Review: New trumpet concerto at Tanglewood insists on being heard

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LENOX — You could hear Detlev Glanert's Trumpet Concerto, which received its world premiere Monday night at Tanglewood, as a dreamer fighting his way out of a nightmare. He's desperate, then resigned, before breaking out of his desperation at the end. He's not shy about shouting his discomfort loud enough to wake any fellow sleepers.

Or you could hear the piece as the German composer intended: a Tanglewood graduate's homage to his teacher here, Oliver Knussen. The solo trumpet, Glanert explains in a program note, embodies the spirit of Knussen, who became head of the Tanglewood Music Center composition program in Glanert's student year, 1986, and was Glanert's role model thereafter. Knussen, an English composer-conductor who was a major figure at Tanglewood in his day, died just a year ago.

Heard either way, Glanert's piece grabbed you by the collar and wouldn't let go, thanks to both the writing and a virtuoso performance by trumpeter Thomas Rolfs with the TMC Orchestra under Andris Nelsons in its 2019 maiden appearance.

Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Rolfs, its principal trumpet, the half-hour concerto requires the soloist to do everything but play upside down. That is, it is wildly difficult — superhumanly so, it would seem, especially in two supersonic cadenzas. Switching between standard and piccolo trumpets, Rolfs was commanding, whatever the role, and the student orchestra under Nelsons provided vivid support.

"I see solo instruments and their gestures, motives, and themes in terms of personalities, as artificial persons in an invisible drama," Glanert writes in a program note. "My music tells you about the fates of these personalities."

Knussen, in person as in his music, could be jocular — listen to his Maurice Sendak operas — but intense and complex. Glanert's dense orchestration even evokes his hero's. Often marked by storm and stress, and stompingly rhythmic at the start and end, which recapitulates the start, the concerto both welcomes and puts a listener off. But it insists on being heard.

The other major work on the program was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. It, too, was conducted by Nelsons, who is recording the cycle of Shostakovich symphonies with the BSO. It also received a vivid performance, duly satirical in the first two movements, before Shostakovich drops the comic mask and dons his more characteristic tragic mask for the last two. The work of a 19-year-old, the symphony complements Prokofiev's mercurial challenge to traditional symphonic form in his first symphony, the "Classical."                                             

This year's two conducting fellows, Killian Farrell and Nathan Aspinall, made their debuts in robust performances of overtures, Berlioz' whoop-it-up "Roman Carnival" and Tchaikovsky's ghost-stalked "Hamlet." Farrell is Irish, Aspinall is Australian, and the young orchestra worked hard and sounded great, with excellent solo work, in its first outing before the public. Glanert took a bow, and the audience applauded generously throughout.

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