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An American welcome to the Tanglewood season: Opening night starring Renee Fleming

This was an auspicious start of the Tanglewood season, signaling, one may hope, the advent of a special musical welcoming and inclusiveness by Maestro Nelsons and his company.

Lenox — A spirit of gracious openness embraced the first Tanglewood Opening under the aegis of Maestro Andris Nelsons. Departing dramatically from the traditional focus on heavy European classics, the musical offerings were drawn from a distinctly American oeuvre, both through composed orchestral works and the splendid yield of “Tin Pan Alley,” Hollywood film, and the Broadway stage.

A delicious summer’s evening followed the intense rain that spilled on the beginning of the July 4 weekend. At the concert’s end, the great American opera diva – or rather, music star – Renee Fleming, led sing-a-longs on Frederick Lowe’s and Allen Jay Lerner’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” and Leonard Cohen’s hymnal popular song, “Halleluja.” The proceedings delighted a huge crowd in the Shed and on the Lawn.

Surveying a wide range of themes and emotions, the initial, more “classical” portion was conducted by William Eddins of the Edmunton (CA) Symphony, who recently supported Renee Fleming’s tour of South Africa, leading the Natal Philharmonic. A remarkably mature figure at 50 years of age, exuding warmth and confidence in the BSO players with a steady hand and a friendly manner, he received his degree from the Eastman School of Music at 18, making him the youngest graduate ever. Eddins is also one of the small number of African-American conductors to ascend to the podium of the Shed.

His zest for our 20th century compositional canon was evident in his detailed and thoughtful treatment of Joseph Schwanter’s 1989 “Freeflight,” subtitled “Fanfares and Fantasy,” commissioned by John Williams for the Boston Pops Orchestra; Aaron Copland’s 1961 “Night Thoughts,” a portion of a larger work, “Music for a Great City” that was originally scored for the movie, “Something Wild”; Samuel Barber’s 1948 “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” with Ms. Fleming as soloist; and John Adams’s 1986 “Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Fanfare for Orchestra.” The Barber could have been an artistic triumph, had it been possible properly to hear and understand Ms. Fleming’s singing and diction.

In Schwantner’s “Freeflight,” Maestro Eddins put down his baton early in the piece, bringing forth with expressive arms and hands the striking, unusual sonorities: eerie duets of xylophone and open vibraphone with woodwind echoes and woodblock punctuations; chimes clattering under hard mallets, transmitting urgent polyrhythms to massed, quiet strings; stacks of 13th chords blown by brass and woodwinds reminiscent of the mighty Stan Kenton band’s cadenzas. Short on thematic and rhythmic development, this was certainly interesting music, beautifully conducted and performed, but wanting in coherency.

Back with baton in the Copland, Eddins led with broad and energetic motions, pulling from the brass bold declarations, from softly massed strings a rich and loamy landscape, and from the superb percussion section both gentle and jazzy rhythms. There were no few straightforward, clear-headed harmonic explorations redolent of the composer’s “Appalachian Spring.” Here again, this was engaging stuff, entertaining and apposite to the sweet spirit of the night.

Renee Fleming entered to cheers and bravas before uttering a word, splendidly attired in a muted teal-blue, floor-length gown, with a long, tulle stole. Her performance of “Knoxville,” however, was so quiet that it was both difficult to hear and nearly impossible to understand. Despite bringing the lights up slightly, the words in the program were all but impossible to read, much less to coordinate with the music.

Had Ms. Fleming used the very microphone that she used later to talk to the audience, and had the BSO provided either supertitles or readable text, the artistic yield would have been vastly better. As it was, Barber’s lush harmonies, exquisite interplay of vocal and instrumental lines, and splendid, Kaleidescopic orchestration, were almost as for nothing. The depictions of Barber’s and poet James Agee’s deep engagement with a six-year-old boy’s sensory and emotional experience depend as much on the text as the music.

To demonstrate what might have been, and to illuminate the genius behind the evening’s programming, here is another Tanglewood favorite, the soprano Dawn Upshaw, performing “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of David Zinman.

Knoxville, Summer of 1915

Click here for the link to the performance.

The Agee text follows below (in italics), so please follow the poetry with the music.

Note Barber’s arching phrases, the soprano’s high notes giving emotional emphasis to certain key words. The very highest note in the singer’s challenging score, Bb above the staff, is sung softly. This occurs in the childlike characterization of the evening, “now is the night one blue dew.”

Powerful compositional devices give added weight, and occasionally lend overwhelming impact to certain words. Barber’s brilliant streetcar orchestration features marvelous honks and traffic noises, fascinating and perhaps frightening the boy. The harmony beneath the passage beginning “Low on the length of lawns” unfolds in a pentatonic sensibility, with a comforting, gently-rocking, folk-song quality. Through Bflat minor, the harmony shifts to F major in what is, for this listener, the most moving episode in the piece, the section that begins, “On the rough wet grass of the back yard.”

Two simple, repeated melodic strands combine with ravishing text to describe the child’s sense of being protected and loved by his parents: the appogiatura Bflat resolving to A and F forming and developing the repeating melody of the “my father is good to me” text. And the “Three Blind Mice” theme, a triviality known to virtually all American children of 1915, extends all through, framing phrases and passages repeatedly, elevating one’s spirits, settling one’s stomach, and, indeed, bringing tears to one’s eyes. The ending phrase, “but will not ever tell me who I am” depicts beautifully how the child senses his parents’ respect for his future development, and for the person he is today.

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints ; halts, the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten. Now is the night one bluedew.

Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes. . .

Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. . .

They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.

By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved at home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, notever; but not evertell me who I am.

JAMES AGEE (c) 1938

John Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” was led strongly, with jazz riffs (repeated, short rhythmic phrases) resounding over steady impulses on the wood block. An astounding 2-minute fast, exposed, fortissimo bass line over scattering winds and strings was walked perfectly by the tuba player, Jerome Stover, substituting for the BSO Principal, Mike Roylance, his doctoral studies supervisor at Boston University. Stover somehow found space to breathe in Adams’s dense array of notes. His every attack was perfect, and his strong, centered sound melded perfectly with the other brass notwithstanding its exposure. To this reviewer, Stover’s was the instrumental tour de force of the evening.

Renee Fleming with conductor Rob Fisher.
Renee Fleming with conductor Rob Fisher.

The second half of the concert, ably led in the fashion of the Great White Way by Rob Fisher, featured clear direction, the beats enumerated with crystalline clarity by his baton, and a fine comprehension of the subtleties of the music, always appropriate to the lyrics. There was some shaggy playing by the orchestra, doubtless a consequence of insufficient rehearsal time. But as the saying goes, it was close enough for jazz.

The stunning1949 “Overture to ‘South Pacific’ by Richard Rodgers, with its resounding “Bali Hai” call at the beginning and the end, and wisps of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” summoned one’s happy memories of the show and the movie. An unfortunate clam in the horn section, forming a minor second in what would otherwise have been an exposed high C, could be forgiven both in the context of the happy display and in keeping with one of the most important messages of the play: Nobody’s Perfect! Neither Nellie Forbush, the sweet girl from Arkansas, the horny enlisted men who extol the figures if not the persons of the women they long for, the expatriate French plantation owner who struggles to accept his interracial children . . . nor the accomplished BSO brass section.

Then Renee Fleming returned, resplendent in a sweeping persimmon silk gown with a long, matching stole. The sartorial blue and white of the first half were thus completed in red. (July 4, get it?) Taking the microphone in hand, Ms. Fleming saluted the orchestra, noting that she had to change clothes to be sure that there was enough room left on stage for the musicians. Some of them, she observed, had to purchase airplane seats for their precious instruments. . . as she does for her dresses. (Here, it should be noted that the percussion section refrained from sounding “ba-dum.” Note the popular definition of a gentleman during the jazz era: a man who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.)

Indeed, this was a different kind of Tanglewood opening night.

Ms. Fleming noted that she grew up with this music, having played Eliza Doolittle (the female lead in “My Fair Lady”) twice before the age of 16.

This was evident in her knowing, affecting renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs: “The Sound of Music” from the 1949 play of the same name in she swooped delightfully to Eflat; her spontaneous leaping to a high Bflat at the end of “Wonderful Guy” from “South Pacific (1949);” and her touching and sensitive portrayal of “Hello, Young Lovers” from “The King and I (1951),” in which the widowed Anna, governess to the children of the King of Siam, expresses her hopes for other lovers’ happiness notwithstanding her own loss, in the immortal phrase, “I’ve had a love of my own.”

Then came Gershwin, in the form of the brief overture to “Girl Crazy,” with some splendid section work by the three BSO trombones, performing a perfectly coordinated slide vibrato in thirds that would have made Duke Ellington proud. For sure, this required some serious woodshedding. It came across like a shooting star.

The official program came to a close with Ms. Fleming’s touching version of “Summertime.” Here, once again, she performed without the microphone, but in the hushed hall, in her caramel tessitura, she was able to evoke the tragedy and hope for the orphaned infant she was holding. Here was a virtuosic triumph of understatement, summoning the beauty of the best Broadway story-telling and American composers’ and lyricists’ courageous confrontation with dispiriting social realities.

Well-earned bravos ensued, and Ms. Fleming’s encores and sing-a-longs included were clamorously received. This was an auspicious start of the Tanglewood season, signaling, one may hope, the advent of a special musical welcoming and inclusiveness by Maestro Nelsons and his company.



The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

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