Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 30, 2019

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Emerson String Quartet

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 24, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

For the second time in four days, soprano Renee Fleming headlined a major world premiere at Tanglewood. After singing Georgia O’Keefe in Kevin Puts’s “The Brightness of Light” with the BSO last Saturday in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, she joined the Emerson String Quartet and two other guests at Ozawa Hall Wednesday in Andre Previn’s final work, “Penelope,” written just before his death this past February and edited for performance by David Fetherolf.

The subject, chosen by playwright-librettist Tom Stoppard, is the wife of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who waits faithfully for twenty years in Homer’s “Odyssey” for her husband’s return from the Trojan War. In the resulting “monodrama,” a soprano and a narrator alternate in singing and speaking Penelope’s words, accompanied by string quartet and piano.

Previn’s eclectic music comfortably supports Stoppard’s alternately ribald and poetic text. The narrator at one point curses her long absent spouse: “Bastard! What are you doing all this time?” But on his return the soprano intones “while the goddess held back the coming day we wove together the threads of time…”

Fleming ardently wrapped her caressing voice around his notes and Stoppard’s words. Appearing in Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the nearby Williamstown Theater Festival, Uma Thurman was an elegant and intense narrator. Simone Dinnerstein played the piano with luxurious tone. Quartet members (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer; cellist David Watkins; violist Lawrence Dutton) displayed their trademark poise and virtuosity.

The first half of the program featured selections by three other American composers. Leading off was George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” originally the slow movement of his 1946 first string quartet. The Emersons played this “lament” for the composer’s grandmother, who had died the year before, with great sensitivity, in what could also have been a tribute to this dean of African American composers, who himself died last year.

This was followed by Richard Wernick’s tenth string quartet, written for the Emersons a year ago and premiered in March 2019. The piece’s three short movements are played without pause, and the dedicatees met the technical and interpretive challenges of this dissonant yet accessible score with finesse. The 85-year-old composer signaled his delighted approval from the audience.

Samuel Barber’s 1936 first string quartet, featuring what the composer called a “knockout” slow  movement that soon took on a life of its own as his “Adagio for Strings,” completed the program in a riveting performance.