BSO's Tanglewood season closer: The Ninth + 1 = the Ninth


LENOX -- Every year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra grapples with the problem of what, if anything, to program with the Beethoven Ninth at its final Tanglewood concert.

If the Ninth is performed alone, even though it runs about 70 minutes, the program seems incomplete. If a shorter piece precedes it, the program feels unbalanced and the introductory piece stands in the shadow of the towering Ninth.

Yesterday, the BSO tried Beethoven's Choral Fantasia as ballast. In a way, it's a logical choice. The Choral Fantasia, an early work, is the Ninth writ small -- virtually a sketch.

A suitable match was made. But, apart from the historical perspective on Beethoven, the 20-minute fantasia and an intermission served in good measure to allow victims of a huge traffic jam to find their seats in time for the Ninth. The Ninth dwarfs all music that aspires to stand beside it. On the fine, sunny day, the Shed and lawn were mobbed for the message.

Charles Dutoit, one of the BSO's grand old men of the podium, presided over the Beethoven afternoon and an Italian-themed program Saturday night. The BSO's playing for him on Saturday was exemplary but, reinforced by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and four soloists yesterday, it was nothing short of spectacular. The excitement rolled off the stage in waves.

Dutoit's taut approach to the Ninth -- to the fantasia, too -- built a framework that left room for expansion and contraction of the musical line to give voice to the inner drama.

The rumbling and jolting first two movements evoked the world in creation; the adagio had a time-stopping serenity. And when bass John Relyea issued his summons to joy, the finale simply exploded in the singing and playing. Nor Dutoit was afraid to let the occasional roughness of Beethoven's concept and sound break through.

Fulfilling their roles, the other soloists were soprano Nicole Cabell, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and tenor Noah Stewart, but as always, it was John Oliver's festival chorus that led the way vocally to Beethoven's Elysium. Give the sopranos extra credit for going fearlessly at the top of their range.

In the fantasia, Yefim Bronfman's powerful yet poised playing in the quasi-improvisatory piano part was the spark that ignited the BSO, chorus and same soloists as in the Ninth plus two, soprano Meredith Hansen and tenor Alex Richardson.

Here's an unsolicited suggestion: Give the Ninth a rest and program Beethoven's Missa Solemnis instead. They're companion works from his late years, rooted in the same Enlightenment ideals and calling for the same performing forces. Amid stirrings of war, the mass ends with urgent pleas for peace: a message for our times.

At about 80 minutes, the mass defies anything to stand beside it. The problem, of course, is that the beloved Ninth regularly draws a crowd like yesterday's, while the Missa Solemnis -- well, it isn't the "Ode to Joy."

‘Twas a dark and chilly night Saturday as the BSO voyaged to sunny Italy with Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture and Respighi's orchestral triptych, "Roman Festivals," "Fountains of Rome" and "Pines of Rome."

Dutoit went for the brilliance in Berlioz and the splashy colors in Respighi. Still, sitting through Respighi's three tone poems one after another, with their blaring trumpets, street festivals and marching feet, is like binging on empty calories.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein took the BSO on a side trip via Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," a Russian virtuoso-composer's take on the Italian virtuoso-composer's famous theme. The imaginative solo performance (to a somewhat scrappy accompaniment) looked beyond athletic display to the lyrical impulse that makes the work a rhapsody and not just a set of showy variations.

Thus the BSO season ended.


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