Tanglewood Online Festival review: When healing becomes pain

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LENOX — In the time of coronavirus, Tanglewood is prescribing "Healing Modes."

In a newly released video in the "Online Festival," Beethoven and three contemporary composers rub shoulders, offering provocative sounds when they can't exactly offer comfort. Healing sometimes feels like pain.

It seems a promising idea. Three years ago, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider conceived a "Healing Modes" program built around Beethoven's "Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Divinity" in his Quartet No. 15, Opus 132. Five composers were commissioned to write companion pieces. The project came to fruition with an audio recording released last March, coincidentally on the eve of the pandemic.

An abbreviated video version was newly recorded in Tanglewood's Linde Center this month. Three distinctively 21st-century pieces provide counterpoint to not only Beethoven but also celebrity fare in other newly released videos in the streaming series. Those companion events are a 100th-birthday tribute to Isaac Stern and a Debussy-Brahms-Adams recital, from Linde, by violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Orion Weiss.

Apart from whether the Beethoven movement should be separated from the complete Opus 132, an ideal performance — Brooklyn Rider's isn't quite there — achieves the nearly superhuman feat of stillness within motion, silence within sound. Beethoven's partners in healing on the video are Caroline Shaw's "Schisma" and Matana Roberts' "borderlands" — both commissions — and Philip Glass' Quartet No. 3.

Healing through music is an old story, going back to ancient times. Although some commissioned works in "Healing Modes" follow Beethoven in recalling personal maladies, the pair performed on the video are pointedly, harshly geopolitical in a quest — almost manifesto — for healing.

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Shaw writes that "Schisma" ("cleft") mourns harsh refugee camps for Syrians and advocates "new growth within the breaks and crevices" dividing peoples and nations. Roberts similarly says her piece takes off from "the U.S.-Mexico border crisis" and seeks healing through protection of human rights.

Anger and protest come through most vividly. Both pieces draw heavily on advanced techniques employing strident or scrabbling pizzicatos, tremolos, glissandos and the like. In "Schisma," pizzicatos and tapping of bows on the instruments' wood give an impression of multiple clocks ticking madly away (time running out?). In "borderlands," indistinct human voices underlie instrumental effects. At one point, the players stoop down to roll dice at their feet.

Though not part of the commissioning project, Glass' third quartet, as the finale, lends a measure of calm with his slowly evolving patterns.

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This is also the year of Black Lives Matter and, without making a point of it, in another Linde video Tanglewood takes a passing glance at an earlier generation of African American composers.

Dropped into a video showcasing Boston Symphony violinists, single movements by William Grant Still and Florence Price recall their heritage in musical language not so far removed from that of flanking works by Mendelssohn and Dvorak (both works complete). Both Black composers were often performed in the 1920s and '30s, earning acclaim especially for their symphonies. They're worth dusting off from time to time.

On the video, Still's "Mother and Child," from his Suite No. 2 for violin and piano, is a fond portrait (though here again, you need to be told the subject). Like Still's vignette, the andante from Price's String Quartet in G is warmly melodic, though with a more complex harmonic and contrapuntal framework.

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The well-attuned performers are violinists Tatiana Dimitriades, Xin Ding, Catherine French and Victor Romanul, with violist Daniel Getz, cellist Mickey Katz and pianist Jonathan Bass. The video also contains selections by Bach and Emile Sauret.

(Premiere alert: On a Saturday, July 31, video, BSO violinist Mary Ferrillo gives what is apparently the first performance of the "Sonatine" for viola and piano by Ulysses Kay, another African American composer from the same era — and a 1941 Tanglewood Music Center student. She came upon the 10-minute piece while looking for something to perform on the video. One of Kay's daughters had discovered the manuscript in his office and donated it to the Columbia University library.)

Far from healing manifestos and African American nostalgia, John Adams' "Road Movies" represents a fun-loving contemporary America.

"Road Movies" — the title is "total whimsy," according to Adams — climaxes the week's exhilarating video by Hadelich and Weiss. The three-movement piece is a bumpy road with its crazed repetitions and rhythms, and Adams says the finale is "for four-wheel drives only." But the piece provides a vehicle (ahem) for the German violinist and American pianist to show another side of the deep penetration they bring to standard sonatas by Debussy and Brahms.

Debussy's only violin-piano sonata, his last work, smolders with hidden passions, while Brahms' Sonata No. 2 rejoices in its lyrical bounty. What's a little car wreck after performances like these?



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