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Tanglewood recreates historic 1937 all-Wagner concert

Asher Fisch

By Clifton Noble Jr.

LENOX - The only thunderstorms that touched Tanglewood attendees Saturday evening were those suggested musically in Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Under the direction of guest conductor Asher Fisch, the Boston Symphony recreated the all-Wagner concert originally performed Aug. 12, 1937 by Serge Koussevitzky under a tent that was interrupted and partially truncated by thunder, lightning, and torrential rain, leading Festival founder Gertrude Robinson Smith to famously state, “this storm has proved conclusively the need for a Shed. We must raise $100,000 to build it!”
This glance back over the shoulder of time to programming as it was practiced in the early 20th century is a refreshing departure from the “Overture – Concerto – Symphony” format that has inevitably begun to bore symphonic concertgoers.

Other than Mozart and Beethoven, few composers these days rate entire evenings devoted to their symphonic composition, yet few are as deserving as Wagner of such a survey. A master of orchestral color and a pioneer in extended and reinterpreted tonal harmony, Wagner fashioned richly hued textures, epic phrases, and grand gestures that are as potent 150 years later as they were when the composer first unleashed them on an unsuspecting public.

These qualities were revealed with passionate clarity by Maestro Fisch, who made his Boston Symphony and Tanglewood debuts with Saturday’s appearance on the podium of the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

The current principal guest conductor of the Seattle Opera and former director of the New Israeli Opera and Wiener Volksoper, Israeli-born Fisch will become principal conductor and artistic advisor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in fall of 2013.

Fisch’s reputation as an expert interpreter of core German repertoire with emphasis on Wagner’s music preceded him. Leading much of the program without score, Fisch revealed a broad expressive palette, from the eager, heroic gallop of the “Rienzi” Overture that opened the concert to the regal, patient pomp of “Tannhaeuser” that closed it.

The cool, hushed Tanglewood evening allowed Fisch and the BSO to conjure both the “Siegfried Idyll” and the “Waldweben” (Forest Murmurs) from nothingness, teasing sound from silence and bringing listeners to the edge of their seats to savor every nuance of the hushed, evolving harmony.

The smiles shared between BSO stand partners after certain triumphal passages, and the general appearance of satisfaction as they took solo, group, or ensemble bows after each heartily “bravoed” performance, seemed to indicate a shared enjoyment and agreement in the repertoire and its interpretation.

Fisch’s account of the Prelude to “Parsifal” was particularly notable in that it defied the usual pouncing accolades of the eager Berkshire audience. Rather, its profound beauty and placid expanse created a blissful balloon of respectful silence that swelled for an uncharacteristic several seconds before being burst by applause.

Fisch was generous in his recognition of individual musicians and families within the orchestra as well. Among the several noteworthy contributions were principal clarinet William Hudgins’s elegant playing in the “Forest Murmurs,” and of course the stately, sonorous wall of BSO brass in the “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Despite the all-instrumental nature of the program, Fisch always conducted as if he were accompanying a great singer, letting the music ebb, flow, and breathe, expressing the fullness of life and imagination that its creator intended. Western Australia is in for a treat, and Seattle Wagner fans are no doubt looking forward to next summer, when Fisch returns to their city to perform the complete “Ring” Cycle.