Review: Bernstein Memorial Concert is a Standout with Young Virtuosos of the TMCO
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, August 22, 2018
Tanglewood’s 2018 Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra was an auspicious event, drawing a large, enthusiastic crowd. To call this a student orchestra would be selling them short — these are tomorrow’s symphonic professionals. This is the cream of today’s crop of young virtuosos.
With Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons on the podium, Tanglewood’s outstanding ensemble impressed, opening with a confident account of Aaron Copland’s too-rarely heard An Outdoor Overture. This approachable work was composed in 1938 for the New York High School of Music and Art. The overture is impressive for packing such stimulation into a package carefully digestible by teenage players. It begins with an expansive, optimistic theme for solo trumpet, beautifully played by Omri Barak.
A genuine highlight of the summer followed, the world premiere of a new work by John Williams, the venerated film composer. As evidenced by this thrilling piece, his contribution to the concert repertoire should not be taken lightly. Titled Highwood’s Ghost, An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra, the new piece features Yo-Yo Ma on cello and BSO Principal harpist Jessica Zhou, and concerns the 150 year old Highwood Manor House on Tanglewood grounds (home to BSO staff), which is rumored to be haunted.
Williams has plenty of experience conveying other-worldliness in music, and here he’s created a work of vivacious theatricality, full of surprises. His frequently spare orchestration occasionally employs startling effects, from the ambiguous whispers of imagined apparitions, to dizzying orchestral crescendos that feel like rushes of adrenaline. Finally, the music shifts gears, when in a tender coda, unexpectedly warm harmonies offer a wistful moment of reflection.
Yo-Yo Ma brings his usual brimming commitment to the rangy, singing cello solo, and Zhou is dazzling in the intricate, colorful harp part. Highwood’s Ghost is like a fearful walk around a creaky, old house, never knowing what may appear around the corner. And, on another level, it’s an exploration of the emotions surrounding death, and ultimately, perhaps, a reconciliation with mortality.
Yo-Yo Ma returned to the stage to play Bernstein’s Three Meditations from MASS, a set of contemplative moments from the composer’s massive MASS. The first two movements are excerpted directly, moments of introspection built into the piece’s interrogation of Roman Catholic liturgy. The third movement is a reworking of other music in the piece, and in the spirit of creating a satisfying concert work in its own right, Bernstein lifts the mood with a jaunty dance passage, followed by a chorale-like hymn. It’s a pleasure to witness the communion between Yo-Yo Ma and the orchestra’s promising young instrumentalists, especially in music of such probing profundity.
The second half of the program consisted of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a true test of any orchestra’s skill. This talented young group is international — comprised of Fellows hailing from such far-flung places as Costa Rica and South Korea, in addition to the U.S. and Canada — and sails through with flying colors. Their timbre is dark and rich— the strings please the ear with a reddish brown color. The low brass’s chocolate sound is mature beyond its years.
The first movement of the Bartók Concerto provided the expressive woodwinds moments to shine through, with round, luscious tones, and impeccable intonation. The second movement, “Game of Pairs,” even more so, with its delicate series of duets, all dexterously played. The third movement, a gripping slow movement in which Bartók depicts the sounds of nighttime, even moments of terror, was arresting, and the “Interrupted Intermezzo” alternated between being graceful — with beguiling, long-lined legato playing from the cellos — and humorous, drawing appropriate chuckles in moments of joking satire.
The Concerto’s finale begins with a burnished, declamatory call in the horns, then a whir of sizzling scales in the strings, and lots of jutting around. Nelsons commanded an expertly shaped, action-packed reading of this showpiece, and the TMC orchestra clearly rose to the occasion of his inspiration. The musicians’ summer in the Berkshires may be coming to an end this year, but as this first-rate afternoon of music making demonstrated, we will be hearing much from them in the future.
Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lennox, MA on August 19, 2018. Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, cellist; Jessica Zhou, harpist.
COPELAND An Outdoor Overture
JOHN WILLIAMS Highwood’s Ghost, An Encounter for Harp, Cello, and Orchestra
BERNSTEIN Three Meditations from MASS
BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra
Cover: Andris Nelsons leads the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; photo: Hilary Scott.