Ozawa Hall concert takes on the world's woes in song

LENOX — You can make a puzzle of it: How do the non-Schubert works on the "Schubert's Summer Journey" series at Tanglewood connect to Schubert?

In effect, Colin Jacobsen, the outlier composer on Thursday night's program, channeled Schubert in "Head, Heart," a vocal work for mezzo-soprano and piano trio. On encountering Lydia Davis' brief poem by that name, Jacobsen writes in the program book, the lines "cut to the core of the beauty and sadness of existence," like Schubert in many of his songs, " and I knew I wanted to set them."

Jacobsen's "Head, Heart" may have shared the valedictory mood of four Schubert songs that preceded it on the program, but it was distinctly modern in its fractured vocal and instrumental lines and other jumpy effects.

Better known to the Tanglewood audience as conductor of the chamber orchestra The Knights, Jacobsen doubled as violinist and composer on this program - the third in the Schubert series - with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In contrast to the vocal pieces, the main Schubert works were cheerful, even ebullient: the Sonatina No. 2, for violin and piano, and the Piano Trio No. 1.

The performances, as you might have expected from this star-level assemblage, were exemplary. The enthusiastic audience, as might also have been expected, filled every seat, including stage seats, in Ozawa Hall and what seemed like every inch of its lawn.

Ten years out of the Tanglewood Music Center, Barton returned firmly established as a leading lady of the opera world. There was something operatic, too, in her singing of the four Schubert songs, all to poems by Goethe.

The stories told here - the death of the King of Thule, Gretchen longing at the spinning wheel for her distant lover - are large in meaning but intimate in scale. In Barton's powerful delivery, with physical gestures to match, they seemed over-dramatic, refusing to let the music speak for itself. Ax, at the keyboard, caught the simplicity within complexity.

The same qualities of voice enabled Barton to project the existential concerns of "Head, Heart." The poem, only 11 lines long, is a potent meditation on death, not only of the individual but also the world.                                                            

The 2017 composition is marked by vocalizations - hisses, whispers and the like - along with irregular snappings and harmonics in the strings, and frequent repetitions of text. "Heart weeps," for example, returns again and again as Head and Heart try to reconcile each other to the inevitability of death.

On first acquaintance with the piece, Head wanted to like it. Heart wasn't sure.                                                       

Jacobsen and Ax teamed in a modestly scaled, attractive performance of the sonatina, music that makes no pretensions to grandness. With Ma, they relished the melodic glories and easygoing cheer in the trio. The subtle differences in playing styles in the strings - Ma was the looser of the two - added zest.


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