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REVIEW: Seeking American Spirits at Tanglewood– BSO pays tribute to liberty, and swing

"The combined institution creates in one stroke the most comprehensive training ground for performing arts and related careers in the country, if not the world." -- Boston Conservatory president Richard Ortner, describing the proposed merger of the Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory

On July 3, in the Tanglewood Shed, the first Symphony concert of the summer season opened a window on the cultural swerves that brought us to present-day America. Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” narrated by John Douglas Thompson, enshrined our greatest President in soaring prose and antiphonal music, signifying humane principle against slavery and exploitation; the teetering heedlessness of the Roaring Twenties was danced to oblivion in John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra);” George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” was given a thrilling performance by Kirill Gerstein, whose improvised cadenza and bursting sfortzandos summoned the spirits of James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Meade Lux Lewis, and Duke Ellington; and an over-orchestrated treatment of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem” attempted to bring the nimbleness of jazz improvisation into the ocean liner of musical ensembles, the symphony orchestra. It also actualized the struggle orchestras face to stay relevant in a popular culture addled by its relentlessly coarsening music.

John Douglas Thompson and Jacques Lacombe with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Opening Night of the Tanglewood season, performing Aaron Copland's 'Lincoln Portrait.' Photo: Hilary Scott
John Douglas Thompson and Jacques Lacombe with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Opening Night of the Tanglewood season, performing Aaron Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait.’ Photo: Hilary Scott

John Harbison’s 1986 “Remembering Gatsby” was a splendid choice to begin a promising concert, his “salvage endeavor,” according to the Harbison’s notes, from a yet-unproduced opera. Subsequently, James Levine offered him a commission to produce a full work, “The Great Gatsby,” based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, at the Metropolitan Opera, as part of his 25th anniversary commemoration. Its first performance there was given in December, 1999.

Harbison commented on the work in the evening’s program notes:

“The piece, which runs about eight minutes, begins with a cantabile passage for full orchestra, a representation of Gatsby’s vision of the green light on Daisy’s dock. Then the foxtrot begins, first with a kind of call to order, then a 20’s tune I had written for one of the party scenes, played by a concertino led by a soprano saxophone. The tune is then varied and broken into its components, leading to an altered reprise of the call to order, and an intensification of the original cantabile.

“A brief coda combines some of the motives, and refers fleetingly to the telephone bell and the automobile horns, instruments of Gatsby’s fate.”

The work began with an impressive, dark seascape, with swells and descending chromatic chords, impressively accented by deeply expressive low brass, with a virtuoso turn by the principal tuba, Mike Roylance, as a rising wave to a piercing high F from a low B flat. Segueing to F major 2/4, a Sears-Roebuck frame for dance bands’ commercial gigs, the soprano sax sang sweetly, reminiscent of Lawrence Welk (whose lively spirit is quoted by Pete Fountain and other band alumni in the Swedish-inflected vernacular: “Pee on your toes, boys!’)

Roylance’s arching tuba morphed into a muscular Dixieland bass, with deliciously sharp edges. The aforesaid melodic deconstruction gently blew apart over jazzy counter-rhythms and graceful chromaticisms, with clear structural parallels across phrases. After an aching rallentendo, it was a tempo again, giving way to a crowd of melodic fragments before resolving once again on the dance theme. This was simultaneously sentimental and bittersweet, a lovely little emotional tour de force. Harbison, summoned to the stage, took a well-deserved bow to enthusiastic applause.

Gershwin’s Concerto in F was then given a stunning performance by Kirill Gerstein, with a grand surprise, his own reconceptualization of its final, long cadenza. He threw caution to the wind and improvised a fine, bluesy solo with a relaxed tempo and a few virtuosic flourishes. (The man’s technique seems magically to blend Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum.) Absent the orchestra, which had been led somewhat metronomically to this point, nearly overwhelming the subtleties of the piano part in volume and compromising its intrinsic swing, Gerstein offered some real, accessible jazz, with beautiful rhythmic anticipations and suspensions, a fine and gentle underpinning beat, sometimes taking a gentle not-quite-boogie-woogie ostinato, and no few relaxed, perfectly-timed jazz ornaments.

The splendid BSO orchestral voices of clarinet, English horn, and the quite amazing trumpet of Tom Rolfs revealed themselves as well. Rolf’s penetrating blues sensibility and astounding technical virtuosity, included, during an A-minor passage, an effortless descent from a high, soft C to the lowest C in the trumpet range, then back up to a high D and E before descending in the cadence to A. This was mind-boggling and heartrending, the kind of musicianship that brings the audience to the Shed year after year, and it had the taste of jazz.

By happy coincidence, this concert’s printed program contained the following biography of the evening’s featured soloist, who is clearly destined for a leadership role in an important new Boston institution (about which, more below):

BSO conductor Jacques Lacombe and pianist Kirill Gerstein perform Gershwin's Concerto in F with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo; Hilary Scott
BSO conductor Jacques Lacombe and pianist Kirill Gerstein perform Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo; Hilary Scott

“Born in 1979 in Voronezh, Russia, Kirill Gerstein attended a special music program for gifted children and taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection. At fourteen, he studied jazz piano as the youngest student ever to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Subsequently deciding to focus on classical music, he moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Solomon Mikovsky and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. He continued his studies in Madrid with Dmitri Bashkarov and in Budapest with Ferenc Rados. An American citizen since 2005, he now divides his time between the United States and Germany, where he has been a professor of piano at Stuttgart’s Musikhochschule since 2006.

“In September 20114 he was named artist-in-residence in the piano department at his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, and joined the piano and chamber music faculty at Boston Conservatory, the first joint appointment between the two institutions.”

After the intermission, the poetry of Copland’s majestic “Lincoln Portrait” was given perfect, understated elocution by the marvelous Shakespearean, John Douglas Thompson, who embodied a convincing, devastating Othello three seasons ago at Shakespeare and Company, and a memorable evocation of an aging, philosophical Louis Armstrong in Terry Teachout’s “Armstrong at the Waldorf” two seasons back, and subsequently Off Broadway. He substituted on short notice for an ailing Jessye Norman, who was unable to travel. (Cognoscenti take note: Mr. Thompson will star in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, Red Velvet, as Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play Othello on the English stage, in 1883. The play runs in Shakespeare and Company’s Packer Playhouse from August 6 to September 13.

The orchestra was nothing short of magnificent in the massed brasses and soaring woodwinds that commented, back and forth, on the themes of the text, and in more dense passages beneath the narration, brought forward snippets of ragtime and 19th Century popular music, notably Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.”

In the spirit, it is worth noting Copland’s beautifully curated text, itself a fine work of composition, evoking the rhythms of the Black church and judiciously interspersing his personal attributes with the great man’s words: 

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”

“That is what he said. That is what Abraham Lincoln said.

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.” [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]

“He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois. And this is what he said. This is what Abe Lincoln said.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country.” [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]

“When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall, and this is what he said.

He said: “It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” [Lincoln-Douglas debates, 15 October 1858]

“Lincoln was a quiet man. Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man. But when he spoke of democracy, this is what he said.

He said: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

“Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of these United States, is everlasting in the memory of his countrymen. For on the battleground at Gettysburg, this is what he said:

He said: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The concert closed with a ponderous re-orchestration of one of Duke Ellington’s concert suites. “Harlem” was given by full orchestra with expanded percussion and woodwinds, including both piano and sax section.

But with due respect to the unnamed guest tenor sax man and the guest conductor, Jacques Lacombe, no classical tenor man can compete with Paul Gonsalves in telling the blues, much less his contemporary exemplar, Branford Marsalis, here in gorgeous performance with soprano, Kathleen Battle, on “Come Sunday,” one of the famous Ellington themes quoted in “Harlem:”


Note, please, its heartfelt emotionality, deliciously swinging tenor responses to the exquisite singing, and importantly, the unprepossessing orchestral background, with perfect balance and apposite swells.

Afterward, if you keep the video running, you should find, in sequence, a fabulous version of Ellington leading his band in “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “The Mooche” in 1956, with a parade of some of the world’s most renowned jazz soloists, including Johnny Hodges, alto sax, Billy Hamilton, clarinet, and Clark Terry, trumpet, backed with subtlety by Ellington, Sam Woodyard, drums, and James Woode, contrabass.

This American concert also culminated a month of important transition in the musical life of Massachusetts and the classical music world and evoked the inspiration and concerns of one of our leading musical protagonists.

On June 21, 2015, Gunther Schuller, died. His service as director of the Tanglewood Music Center from 1970 to 1985, and as president of the New England Conservatory of Music from 1967 to 1977, transformed both institutions and attempted to refocus their efforts toward the future rather than past. His books, “Early Jazz,” “The Swing Era” and “On Conducting,” adroitly addressed ineffable perishable musical traditions. And his daringly original compositions and invention (at NEC) and promotion across the world of a “Third Stream” hybrid of classical, jazz, and ethnic musics brought him many prestigious acknowledgments (including a 2009 Jazz Master award by the National Endowment for the Arts).

Where classical and jazz rhythms overlapped and collided, Schuller often posed the question, “What is ‘swing?’ ” And he answered it, especially in his astute conducting, trusting the orchestra to get the style. Sadly, classical conductors frequently ignore Schuller’s guidance, for example, on the subtlety of syncopation where, especially in jazz performance, the off-beat is stressed in layers of rhythm.

Gunther Schuller. Photo:
Gunther Schuller. Photo: Bruce Duffie

“Musicians and conductors sometimes tend to forget that a syncopation can only sound syncopated if it is in reaction to a strongly felt beat. When a normally weak beat is stressed, that stressing can only be perceived as such when the normally strong beat is also felt in all its full strength and weight.” (Gunther Schuller, On Conducting, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 270)

And in this excellent, deeply-informative disquisition on defining swing:

“In all of jazz there is no element more elusive of definition than swing. Although it is something that almost all good jazz musicians can do and recognize, and something whose presence or absence almost all jazz audiences can instantly distinguish, it is also something that is extremely hard to define in words. In Early Jazz I offered what is in effect a partial definition of swing.

“But perhaps it is possible now to probe still deeper into the matter by approaching a definition of swing from two points of view: one quite general, experienced as a direct reaction; the other quite specific, analyzed in technical-acoustical terms.

“In its simplest physical manifestation swing has occurred when, for example, a listener inadvertently starts tapping his foot, snapping his fingers, moving his body or head to the beat of the music. Rhythm is the most magnetic irresistible force among all the elements of music – harmony, melody, timbre, dynamics, etc. – and one to which human response is virtually universal. In a vast majority of the world’s musical cultures, rhythm – and its more specific manifestation, the beat – is the primary, indeed primeval element, to which human minds, hearts and bodies respond. Interesting examples of that fact can be seen in primitive music – be it the truly primitive and undeveloped musical efforts of certain aborigine cultures or the often harmony-less, melody-less but rhythmically-obvious exertions of certain modern rock performances. (emphasis your reviewer’s) For regardless of whatever other musical elements might be missing or feebly represented, as long as rhythm is functioning, the human physical/emotional response is almost guaranteed, be it achieved with harmony or melody, and even less with the other constituent components that collectively constitute the world of sound and music.

“But rhythm or a beat does not in itself produce swing While a really swinging beat or rhythm will make sophisticated dancers perform quite extraordinary terpsichorean feats, we also know that the vast amount of social dancing in the Western world occurs to the dullest, stiffest unswinging ‘clomp-clomp’ rhythms. Similarly, the good clean rhythm of a superb classical orchestra is not necessarily swing. Indeed, metronomic accuracy and rhythmically regular placing of time points (or beats) do not by any means guarantee swing.

“What then in technical terms is this elusive element? There are certain preconditions without which swing cannot occur. One is a regular reiterated beat, a regular pulse, either explicit – as in, for example, the 4/4 beat patterns in bass, drums, and guitar in a rhythm section – or implicit – as in an irregular rhythmic figure which nevertheless adheres to and is rooted in an underlying beat.

“Second, these rhythmic impulses — both the notes a musician is actually playing and the pulse underlying those notes, whether in a 2-bar break or a seven-minute improvisation – must be felt. They cannot be calculated, counted, intellectually arrived at, and still produce swing. Whatever calculation or study is involved must occur during the learning stages of the process. For a condition of ‘swing’ to exist, any calculating, studying, and practicing must have been translated in a feeling. It must arise not from the mind or the brain – although the brain may be involved with its controlling critical capacities by receiving the information conducted to it by the ear – but from one’s instincts and natural, at times even unconscious, impulses and feelings. When swing occurs it is innate, not studied. It is free and unhindered insofar as it arises from natural felt impulses; but at the same time it is controlled by the auditory apparati of the ear and mind. It is produced in the not fully conscious realms, but is governed by the conscious mind.” (Gunther Schuller, The Quintessence of Swing, In: The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 223-224.)

Boston conservatory ballet.
Boston Conservatory ballet.

Another transition in Boston this past month signaled a further reconciliation of our musical traditions and charted a new path toward their further integration: the planned merger of the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music. Note, please, this sentence from Berklee’s announcement :

“The combined campus would also provide new opportunities for academic collaboration: a first-ever program in jazz dance, allowing Conservatory dancers to work directly with the gifted students of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute; songwriting and new-theater-works programs that take advantage both of Berklee’s expertise in contemporary song and the Conservatory’s depth in theater and stagecraft studies; and more fluid boundaries among ensembles that perform everything from Beethoven to Bollywood, from Monk to Mahler — all at a level that sets the bar for worldwide excellence.” Click here for the announcement in full.

On June 25, 2015, Malcolm Gay in Boston Globe article on the merger quoted the head of the current Boston Conservatory:

“ ‘The combined institution creates in one stroke the most comprehensive training ground for performing arts and related careers in the country, if not the world,’ said Boston Conservatory president Richard Ortner.

Berklee College of Music
Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Berklee would retain its name, and the Conservatory would become known as the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.”

We ought not to deny, in saluting this new, combined institution, which will become the world’s largest music conservatory, the extraordinary contributions of the New England Conservatory of Music, which Gunther Schuller served so well, and Boston University’s music conservatory within its School of Fine Arts. These are the traditional academic homes for the teaching studios of key members of the Boston Symphony, who in turn have nurtured the careers of many leading contributors to the classical music world.

One may hope that the change that’s in the offing will lead to a fuller embrace of diverse musical cultures, with this fine orchestra taking a lead, as we so appreciated at the opening night at Tanglewood.

(Disclosure: Your reviewer served 3 terms, from 2001 to 2010, as a trustee of the Berklee College of Music, and from 1994 to 2009 as an overseer of the New England Conservatory of Music.)


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