Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 24, 2019

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Elgar/Puts/Gershwin/Stravinsky

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 20-21, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

The energizing presence of the BSO’s young Music Director brings a special excitement to Tanglewood, especially when he’s joined by world-class vocal and instrumental soloists. All this and a major world premiere made for two memorable concerts this past weekend.

Andris Nelsons
On Saturday evening Andris Nelsons opened his program with a glowing account of Elgar’s masterful 1899 “Enigma” Variations on an Original Theme, which put the composer on the musical map at age 42. With varied tempos and virtuosic orchestrations, its fourteen variations suggest how different acquaintances of Elgar, from his wife to his publisher, might have played the theme. The BSO and their conductor probed its emotional depths with polish and conviction. 

Intermission was followed by the world premiere of “The Brightness of Light,” a cycle of twelve songs for soprano, baritone, and orchestra by Missouri-born composer Kevin Puts, whose first opera, “Silent Night,” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. The text is drawn from letters between the American painter Georgia O’Keefe and her mentor-lover-husband, German-born photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, 23 years her senior. Their complex, shifting relationship, in which she gradually assumes the upper hand, is movingly conveyed by the colorful and evocative score.

Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming was radiant and vulnerable as O’Keefe, while Rod Gilfry was alternately avuncular and anguished as Stieglitz. Video projections by Wendall K. Harrington of works by both artists and their handwritten letters added powerful atmosphere. James Darrah staged and directed the presentation with sensitivity. Nelsons led a mesmerizing performance of a piece that should be widely heard. 

On Sunday afternoon popular guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was right at home in idiomatic renditions of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto and Variations on “I Got Rhythm” for piano and orchestra. The French-born soloist’s high comfort level with this jazz-flavored repertoire came as no surprise to listeners who know his perceptive recordings of music by Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. Nelsons and the BSO were equally attuned partners, with particularly soulful work from principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs in the concerto’s blues-inflected central nocturne.

An exciting version of Stravinsky’s complete 1911 ballet “Petrushka” completed the program after intermission. Latvian-born Nelsons has the folk-inspired Russian contours of this music in his blood. Retiring bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom, whose fluid playing was notable in several of the ballet’s four scenes, was honored for his distinguished 40-year career with the BSO.