BSO: The view from Valhalla

07.23.12
Asher Fisch
The Berkshire Eagle

BY ANDREW L. PINCUS

In the revolving door leading to the director-less Tanglewood podium, someone this summer has finally made it through without pinching a toe.

Asher Fisch, an Israeli-born conductor who has worked in many of the world's leading opera houses, made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut Saturday night in a program of Wagner orchestral excerpts. Wagner's music dramas unfold over long spans of time. Ripped out of context, excerpts like these ("bleeding chunks" is the common term) are often pumped up to put the grandeur back in.

Fisch had the BSO sounding like a great Wagner orchestra, first of all. He drew a sumptuous tone: strings deep and burnished (cellos and basses seated on the outside for extra depth), brasses bronzed and blended, winds vivid both individually and as a section.

But the overall sweep was the most impressive thing. From the hushed intimacy of the "Siegfried Idyll" to the erotic ecstasies of the Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde," the playing moved at a measured pace, glowed from within and swelled to Valhalla heights of passion. Even the "Ride of the Valkyries" was broad in tempo -- and the more potent for it.

The program, part of Tanglewood's 75th anniversary celebration, looked back at the famous evening of Aug. 12, 1937, when a thunderstorm engulfed the BSO's tent and led to construction of the Shed a year later. Tanglewood still enjoys horrendous storms -- last year, one forced cancellation of the closing program altogether -- but for the reprise in the Shed, the gods smiled. Skies were cloudless, temperatures easy.

The program was exactly Koussevitzky's from 1937: Seven standard excerpts, beginning with the "Rienzi" Overture and ending with the "Tannhaueser" Overture. Each emerged as an organic whole, solemn where solemnity was due ("Parsifal"), unforced in climaxes (most of all, "Tristan"). Among the many outstanding soloists were horn player Richard Sebring in the "Siegfried Idyll" and clarinetist William R. Hudgins as the bird in "Forest Murmurs."

Sunday's concert had an apparently unprecedented feature: a son and father sharing the podium duties.
Still weak from an April fall, Kurt Masur, 85, turned over the first half of his all-Mozart program to his son Ken-David, a second-year Tanglewood conducting student. The joint appearance was a nice gesture to an aging maestro, but the effect was at once hopeful and dispiriting.

The son, who conducted a reduced BSO in "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and the accompaniment to the Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491, is clearly talented. The appearance, however, raised awkward questions of fairness -- other conducting students do not get this privilege -- and preparedness.

Gerhard Oppitz was an eloquent soloist in the concerto, bringing out Mozart's storm and stress without making heavy weather of it, especially in a tumultuous cadenza. But in both pieces, the BSO's playing was mainly dutiful. Phrases and articulation tended to be flattened out.

Assisted by his son and roundly cheered by the audience, the father came on after intermission to conduct the "Linz" Symphony (No. 36). Though the performance had an old-school feeling about it, it showed an old master's touch in the many deft details.

Young violin whizzes seem to pour out of China at a rate of a dozen a day. Dan Zhu, who made a strong BSO debut Friday night, came in the role of ancient Greeks as interpreted by Leonard Bernstein in his "Serenade (after Plato's ‘Symposium')."

Bernstein has one foot in Athens and one in Broadway in these discourses on love. Dan employed a lustrous tone in both the saccharin and jittery episodes, and the BSO under Christoph Eschenbach, who recommended Dan, lent supple support.

To conclude, Eschenbach took Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony on a roller-coaster ride. Highs were higher, lows lower, everything tightly controlled. The BSO played well for him but would have played better if given space to breathe. The performance did the sobbing for you. The audience contributed the usual premature ovation after the march movement.