Tanglewood, August 16, 2003

The Boston Globe has a report o­n last Saturday’s John Williams concert in Tanglewood, in which the Maestro conducted his Elegy for Cello and Orchestra (featuring Yo-Yo Ma) along with pieces by Vaughan Williams, Michael Tippett, Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies:

‘A Touch of youthful decadence at Tanglewood’

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 8/18/2003

LENOX — Leonard Bernstein was a child of Tanglewood, and he remained grateful to this parent of his musical life throughout his career — the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra was one of the first he ever conducted, and the next to last.

Tanglewood’s annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert is now fittingly played by the TMC Orchestra, and yesterday afternoon’s event was doubly touching because it was the ensemble’s final program of the season. Each summer the group begins at an impressive level and then progresses through weeks of concerts, chamber music, new music, and opera to an enviable standard that is still fired by youthful enthusiasm — we always hate to see the players go.

In recent years, James Conlon has established a special relationship with the group. Yesterday he stepped aside from his ongoing Mahler cycle to lead Brahms’s Second Symphony, his own suite from Alexander Zemlinsky’s opera “A Florentine Tragedy,” and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell.

Richard Strauss gave up decadence and shock after writing “Salome,” but other composers took up the flaming torch; Zemlinsky’s music is opulent, swooning, and lurid, and Conlon and the young players squeezed every last drop of perverse passion out of it.

The Tchaikovsky received a brilliant, somewhat schizophrenic performance. Bell, the charismatic violinist, played much of it with intimacy and nuance, but soloist, conductor, and orchestra drove and even shoved the rest pretty hard. The audience loved all of it and gave Bell two standing ovations — one after the first movement.

Conlon was all geniality in the Brahms Symphony, played with warmth, solidity, depth, and affection. The response was tumultuous, so there was a festively appropriate encore, Bernstein’s overture to “Candide.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s contribution to the weekend was a standard program performed at a high level under Neeme Jarvi and a selection of mostly English music led by that informed and expert enthusiast John Williams and featuring Tanglewood’s resident superstar this summer, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Jarvi led off with a sweeping performance of Smetana’s tuneful evocation of Bohemia’s great river, “The Moldau.” Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet then sprang onstage for the Grieg Concerto, wearing one of his trademark Thierry Mugler outfits, elegant but with a bit of flash — which pretty much sums up the way he plays. There were sensitive and poetic moments, teasing and dancing rhythms, and plenty of rip-roaring, octave-flinging excitement — an urbane performance of a country piece.

The program closed with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, led by Jarvi with authority, imagination, taste, and fire, and sumptuously played by the orchestra. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” remarked a visiting friend from Britain, unaccustomed to what Tanglewood audiences can take for granted.

Williams led off with a rollicking, stinging performance of Vaughan Williams’s overture “The Wasps” and returned to one of his favorites, the “Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles,” which Michael Tippett composed in 1948. This is a piece of national celebration, based on old folk tunes, hymns, carols, and dances, and themes in that style by Tippett himself. The music is charming, spirited, and full of the hope that attends every birth.

Ma played the Elgar Concerto with matchless warmth and involvement, projecting the most personal, quiet thoughts across vast spaces because he had so intensely internalized them. He also played a short piece by Williams, “Elegy,” which is moving because of its understatement and the subtle curve of melody over unexpected evolutions of harmony. Ma played it from the heart.

The concert closed with the most popular work commissioned by the Boston Pops during Williams’s tenure as conductor — Peter Maxwell Davies’s “An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise.” The music is folklike, delightful, and increasingly boozy and woozy as the celebrations go on until the majesty of dawn, embodied in the arrival of a Highland bagpiper. The performance, by Williams, the orchestra, such principal players as concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and oboist John Ferrillo, and bagpiper Iain Massie was sensational — this piece is great not just because it’s ingenious and fun but because it is more than that, a celebration of nature and of humanity’s place in it.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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