Recalling a simpler America

Monday, July 27
LENOX -- If you judged by Sunday's Tanglewood concert, the American mood in the years 1936 to 1951 was sometimes somber, sometimes brash, but sure of shared values.

You wouldn't be wrong. Compared to today's fractured society, when everything can be reduced to a rant or a Tweet, the music of the World War II and immediate postwar years reflected a broad commonality of purpose and experience.

Even Leonard Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety" Symphony, the most despairing of the four works on the Boston Symphony Orchestra program, emerged from this milieu. It assumed that there are enduring values whose endangerment is worth being anxious about.

It wasn't as if there weren't pop influences or experimentalists in classical music back then. But the four composers on the program wrote within a broad, largely tonal mainstream unlike today's stylistic free-for-all. Even when Bernstein dipped into a 12-tone idiom, it was within a framework of an eclectic modernism that also embraced pop and jazz.

David Robertson, director of the St. Louis Symphony, led the imaginative, stimulating program, a kind of sequel to baritone Thomas Hampson's "Song of America" recital Wednesday night. Hampson enriched orchestral songs by Virgil Thomson and Samuel Barber with his manly voice, keen intelligence and dedication to American music.

The seldom performed Thomson songs, to five poems by William Blake, were a real find. Best known as a critic, Thomson ranged in these moving settings from the dramatic in "Tiger! Tiger!" to the poignant in "The Little Black Boy," whose hope for reconciliation between races still rings true today.

The three Barber songs, though known in their piano settings, were also treasurable. Unashamedly romantic, Barber (and Hampson) waxed lyrical in the first two songs, both about love, but plunged fully clad into battle in James Joyce's "I Hear an Army Charging upon the Land."

Two quintessentially American symphonies flanked the song groups.

To open, Robertson revived Roy Harris' Symphony No. 3, which has fallen into disuse, even by the BSO, despite its 1939 premiere and many subsequent performances under Serge Koussevitzky. It had last been heard at Tanglewood in 1974.

Well performed by the BSO despite what must have been scant rehearsal time, the one-movement work opened many vistas, all seemingly American.

It is an energetic, polyphonic symphony, optimistic until the end, when a note of tragedy possibly foretells World War. II.

There are two ways of looking at Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety," which takes its cues from a lengthy poem by W. H. Auden. It is either an exercise in alienation, like the Auden original, or a hodgepodge of styles ranging from Hollywood lushness to grinding dissonances, all of them climaxing in a grandiose Mahler-Copland peroration.

A solo piano serves as protagonist in this failure to connect. Orli Shaham, Robertson's wife (which makes him violinist Gil Shaham's brother-in-law), played the difficult part with mastery of its ruminations and flights, including a jazzy "masque" just before the end.

Despite the exertions by all hands, the complexity of Bernstein's means in this piece never quite seems warranted by the ends.

Alienation, however, seemed to afflict the box office. Even with tickets given away, the Shed and lawn were sparsely populated. It was brave of the BSO to take the chance.

It's not often that James Levine misses but Brahms' "German Requiem" on Saturday night eluded his illuminating touch. The broad outline in the message of consolation was clear and sometimes compelling. It was the revelatory detail that was missing.

The difficulty laid in the size of the chorus. John Oliver's Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with its customary thrust and commitment, throttling down for soft passages. But it was 130 strong and the sopranos dominated; sometimes it seemed there were two choruses - sopranos and everybody else.

The full-out climactic moments, such as the overthrow of death, packed a punch. But Brahms is offering comfort to the living here, not prayers to spare the dead the fiery pit. In so gentle a work, the choral mass was overwhelming.

Meanwhile, the soloists, soprano Hei-Kyung Hong and baritone Matthias Goerne, took a quasi-operatic approach. Neither was convincing but Goerne at least had the vocal goods to make a case. As in the recent "Meistersinger," Hong's voice sounded frayed, her diction mushy.

The Friday and Saturday concerts were Levine's last full ones with the BSO for the season.

Friday was a story-telling and picture-painting night -- also a thunderstorm night. Booming heavens and pounding rain accompanied Berlioz' melancholy wanderer in "Harold in Italy," a French romantic's take on Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." As the protagonist-soloist, BSO principal violist Steven Ansell was up against it in the weather.

As best one could tell, in a part that sometimes invites macho swagger, he appealingly took a dreamer's solitary view of the countryside's passing attractions, which culminate in a brigands' orgy. An orgy of dampness took the edge off the BSO's playing.

Levine and the BSO preceded "Harold" with a blaze of festivity in Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture. Moving to Russia, they went on to Mussorgsky's brooding prelude to the opera ""Khovanshchina" and his gallery tour in "Pictures at an Exhibition."

For the Mussorgsky suite, performed in Ravel's orchestration, Levine reinforced the BSO with student players from the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. The paintings and promenades were vividly characterized in tightly focused playing. Especially notable results came from the enlarged trumpet section, and in particular from principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs in his crucial solos.

With the gong pealing in the super-sized orchestra and the thunder cannonading outdoors, the concluding "Great Gate" section felt like a warmup for the "1812" Overture at Tanglewood on Parade tomorrow night.


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