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Bernstein celebration, Tanglewood Festival, Massachusetts — a grand birthday tribute

Bernstein celebration, Tanglewood Festival, Massachusetts — a grand birthday tribute

August 28
15:35 2018

There have been more artistically telling moments in the ongoing, not to say endless (more than 2,000 events worldwide so far) Leonard Bernstein centenary celebrations. But for symbolic value, it would be impossible to surpass this gala concert staged by the Boston Symphony at its magical Tanglewood Festival.

As film, video and spoken narration insistently reminded us, Bernstein loved Tanglewood: he grew up in the Boston area, went to Harvard, and, as a protégé of Serge Koussevitzky and Aaron Copland, got his start as a member of Tanglewood’s first conducting class in 1940. He returned regularly to conduct and teach, and gave his last public performance here on August 19, 1990. Bernstein’s music has permeated Tanglewood programming this summer. The gala took place on the final weekend, on August 25, his 100th birthday.

Galas can be clumsy, especially when they serve as raw material for a subsequent television documentary — this one will be seen as part of the Great Performances series in December. Still, the whole affair was deftly stage-managed by James Darrah.

The programme was split between Bernstein’s compositions in the first half, with the second half devoted largely to music by Copland and Mahler. The Broadway soprano Audra McDonald served as host, reading a script credited to Stephen Wadsworth. Aside from Boston’s music director Andris Nelsons and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, there were (symbolic) musicians from other orchestras to which Bernstein was linked, including the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic and the young Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. It all made for a truly Mahlerian array.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood © Chris Lee

That said, the evening was long (three hours) and the performances uneven. Nelsons zipped through the Candide Overture and violinist Midori (who made her Tanglewood debut at age 14 with Bernstein conducting) did a lovely job with the haunting first movement of the Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”, Christoph Eschenbach conducting. Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops led “Kaddish 2” from the Symphony No. 3 with soprano Nadine Sierra, thus neatly sidestepping the problematic effectiveness of the composer’s own emotive narration. Eschenbach and Kian Soltani, an Iraqi-born, central European-trained cellist, did a Meditation from Mass. Then came five semi-staged numbers by a nearly all-white, amplified, Broadway-centric cast (led by Isabel Leonard) from West Side Story, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Redressing the colour balance slightly, McDonald joined in for the encore of “Somewhere” from that musical.

After a lot of the audience cleared out, the second half proved equally inconclusive, mostly because Nelsons did not reveal himself to be a Lenny-like Mahler conductor. “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn seemed an odd insertion, sung by a dry-voiced Thomas Hampson. Nelsons failed utterly to convey the religious ecstasy of the finale from Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The fine soloists were Sierra and Susan Graham, but the massed music-making sounded slack and four-square, further undercut by the lack of a proper organ.

From left: Yo-Yo Ma, Jessica Zhou and John Williams at the Bernstein gala © Chris Lee

Sandwiched between the Mahlers came the extended finale of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, lovingly conducted by Thomas — far and away the highlight of the night — and a 15-minute composition by John Williams, who conducted and who preceded Lockhart at the Boston Pops. It was entitled Highwood’s Ghost and had something to do with a rumoured Tanglewood spectre. Jessica Zhou, harpist of the Boston Symphony, and Yo-Yo Ma on cello were the soloists. Deft and inoffensive, it sounded about 10 minutes too long.


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