At Tanglewood: Style Points

07.27.09
David Robertson
The Faster Times

By Matthew Guerrieri

Nearly every summer, right around my birthday-mostly because it's also Serge Koussevitzky's birthday-Tanglewood comes up with some happy indulgence in American classical music populism, a voyage around the old Berkshire Music Center favorite-son poles of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. This year, it was St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson guest conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program featuring not only Bernstein, but also Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and Samuel Barber, tracing a thread of Americana from austere to opulent.

The Harris was his Third Symphony, one of the earliest "Great American Symphonies" to earn the appellation, premiered by Koussevitzky and the BSO in 1939. Its remarkably disciplined construction-static tableaux of deep, well-defined sonic textures, short, Beethoven-esque themes, stripped-down counterpoint-taps into both the country's industrial energy and agrarian mythology, an assembly line delivering open-space lyricism rather than Fords. Supposedly the most-performed American symphony, it nevertheless doesn't turn up as much as it should anymore, and it's a far more fascinatingly flinty and fierce Americana than a century of imitation Copland may have conditioned us to. The performance emphasized the music's efficiency, unsentimental and precise-the nocturnal Pastoral section possibly too static, though setting up a terrifically implacable crescendo into the brassy Fugue.

Thomas Hampson, whose recital [1] earlier in the week was still a topic of conversation, returned for two sets of post-WWII song. Composer-critic Virgil Thomson's "Five Songs from William Blake," from 1951, seems curious on paper, but Blake's freewheeling richness and Thomson's artfully prim nostalgia mesh better than expected, the emotion more intense for being so carefully framed. Still, the songs don't quite work. Thomson sets up his stylistic hooks with lapidary strokes (parlor-hymn for "The Divine Image" and "The Little Black Boy," grim march for "Tiger! Tiger!" and "And Did Those Feet," short-leash Romanticism for "The Land of Dreams") but soon simply turns the voice loose to meander within the mood: every number went a bit slack in the middle. It made me realize that I like Thomson's vocal writing best when he's not trying to parse out the words' sense, but simply reveling in their music-no wonder he and Gertrude Stein were such a good match. Hampson navigated the songs' jumpy range with dexterity, though "And Did Those Feet" (better known in Parry's "Jerusalem" hymn setting) seems pitched too low for the sort of oratorical effect Thomson is aiming for. This performance was the premiere of a new edition, edited by Charles Fussell; Thomson's chamber-like orchestration gleamed.

The Barber songs were the familiar-to-voice-students trio of "Sure on this shining night," "Nocturne," and "I hear an army," as orchestrated for mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel in 1945. (Surprisingly, the BSO had never played any of them.) These are Barber at his most neo-Romantic, but he does it so well that the songs seem American by dint of their prodigious, can-do skill alone. The set showed a much better feel than the Thomson for the combination of voice and orchestra-where the Blake songs orchestrate around the voice, Barber orchestrates with it, waves of sound for the singer to ride. Hampson, pulling out his ringing-trombone stop, surfed them with aplomb.

Bernstein's Symphony no. 2, "The Age of Anxiety" (loosely modeled after Auden's poem) is his prime entry in the "Great American Symphony" sweepstakes, and a strong one at that-one of the best large-scale symphonic essays of the past century. (And, not coincidentally, another piece Koussevitzky premiered.) Where Harris incises, Bernstein embraces: moody melancholy, abrasive big-city blues, sloppy sentimentality, rhetorical triumph-it's all in there, orchestrated with the largest possible palette, the band augmented with a solo piano part of near-concerto expanse. But the thread of intensity gathers the varied sheafs into a big, muscular whole.

Roberston's wife Orli Shaham gave a superb account of the solo piano part, with deep color and fine details; while many pianists toss off "The Masque" with be-bop brittleness, Shaham opted for an intriguingly Chopin-like undulation and haze, the lens of disillusion powerfully distorting. Robertson and the orchestra were brilliantly grand; I don't think I've ever heard a performance that better integrated the piece's episodic nature into a full-fledged symphonic sweep, sentence to paragraph to chapter to epic. Like America, Bernstein's music is almost always a glorious mess, but in the Second Symphony, it's the mess that's the source of the glory. E pluribus unum.