Jeremy Yudkin | Performances Not to Miss: 'Make a joyful noise!'
This is part of a weekly series of columns devoted to a brief look ahead at the weekend's principal Tanglewood concerts.
Puccini's "La boheme" had its premiere in Italy in 1896, conducted by a youthful Arturo Toscanini. This wonderfully touching opera of friendship, love, and tragedy is to be performed on Saturday night at Tanglewood in a semi-staged production, complete with English translation on supertitles. Statistics show that "La boheme" is one of the most frequently performed operas world-wide, with over 3,000 performances during the 2017-18 season alone. There is no secret to this success. The story captures the struggle of young artists to pursue their passions in the face of poverty and society's disregard, while the music shows Puccini at his melodic, expressive best, with soaring arias, moving dialogue, and a profound, colorful, orchestral score.
On Friday Tanglewood presents a program of Wagner, Mozart, and Schumann. Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" is perhaps his most beautiful and accessible orchestral work, composed as a birthday present for his wife Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried. (As a surprise, he had it performed in their house to awaken her on Christmas morning, 1870.) Some 20 minutes long, it is permeated by a rising phrase of love and optimism. The Mozart "Piano Concerto in B-flat, K. 595," is the last of a long series of piano concertos with which Mozart gained special popularity in Vienna during his lifetime. He probably played the premiere himself in March of 1791. It is a brilliantly unified work, with a central slow movement whose gentle tranquility provides a perfect example of Mozart's subtle (and inimitable) craft.
Schumann's "Third Symphony" was his last composed, since his so-called Fourth was written nine years earlier. These things happen. The symphony came about after a delightful trip the composer took with his wife Clara to the countryside of the Rhine river; it is therefore subtitled the "Rhenish." Like every composer of the 19th century (and many since then), Schumann felt a powerful debt to Beethoven, who stood as a model in his composing life. The "Rhenish" symphony is inspired by Beethoven's Sixth (the "Pastoral"), with its five movements instead of the traditional four, the river evocation in the second movement, and the unbroken connection between the fourth and fifth movements. The music's characterizations are compelling: a heroic first movement, a dance for the second, peacefulness in the third, a cathedral procession in the fourth, and jubilation in the finale.
Sunday afternoon's concert provides a wonderful opportunity for musical comparisons. Mendelssohn's "Fourth Symphony" is also the result of a sightseeing journey; and, although it was written in 1833, when the composer was 24, it was not published until 1851, after Mendelssohn's death and in the same year as the publication of Schumann's "Rhenish." Mendelssohn's journey was to Italy, and his Fourth Symphony is subtitled "the Italian." The music is overflowing with the joyful expression of the young composer's discovery of the sunlit countryside and high spirits of the Mediterranean.
Beethoven moved to Vienna just a year after Mozart's death, so he had his own model to follow. Like Mozart he decided to appear before the public as both composer and pianist. His "First Piano Concerto" was written and first performed in 1795, when Beethoven was 25 and struggling to make his name in the capital of European music. Though clearly indebted to both Haydn and Mozart, it displays a harmonic quirkiness that is pure Beethoven.
Continuing the BSO's tribute to Bernstein, Sunday's program concludes with that composer's "Chichester Psalms" — a setting, in Hebrew, of some of the words from the Psalms of David, including Psalm 100 ("Make a joyful noise unto the Lord"), with a boy soprano representing the young David. The religious origin of the text does not deter Bernstein from adopting the jazzy rhythms and choral excitement of his best Broadway shows.
Jeremy Yudkin gives Pre-Concert Talks for Tanglewood on Fridays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Lenox Library. See summermusicseminars.org.
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