John Williams conducts the Boston Pops Orchestra in music from his film scores
during Tanglewood on Parade. Photo: Hilary Scott

In addition to its headline concerts with major artists and ensembles, Tanglewood plays host to the Tanglewood Music Center, one of the premiere summer training programs in the world. The BSO concerts in the Koussevitzky Music Shed may take center stage, but beyond them, rehearsing every day, giving multiple performances a week, are the hundred-some TMC Fellows, all young musicians on the verge of beginning their professional careers. We heard a bit from them on Sunday, when they appeared in the Shed with Andris Nelsons, but to me it is their performances of chamber music in Ozawa Hall that really fill out Tanglewood's rich tapestry.

The TMC vocal fellows on Monday night gave a performance that was simply extraordinary. Their challenge was a complete performance of Hugo Wolf's Italianisches Liederbuch, or “Italian Songbook,” a collection of forty-six songs of romantic love, both its joys and its pitfalls. When taken as a complete cycle, the set is often jointly performed by a male and a female singer, splitting up the songs as suggested by the texts. TMC supplied six singers (three sopranos, two baritones, and a bass-baritone), divided into three couples—why not?

The performance was lightly staged by director Sanford Sylvan, and this is where a more careless approach might have gotten into trouble—trying to put too much of a dramatic spin onto a song cycle (and especially a set that isn't strictly intended as a cycle, like this one) can easily become cloying. This, though, was a tasteful realization, economical in its demands of the singers, drawing most of its effect from the relative positioning of the performers rather than forcing them to be constantly in motion. Moreover, the selection and distribution of songs gave each couple a distinct relationship, one innocently romantic, one playful, and one deeply troubled.

Interpreting Wolf’s songs is no easy task—they are as emotionally deep and technically tricky as anything in the lieder repertoire. These singers (to say nothing of their brilliant accompanists) were more than up to the challenge, performing the entire cycle with crisp diction, superb vocal technique, and keen musical sense. Each brought a unique timbre to the music, treating the audience to a beautiful array of vocal colors, but the one that particularly stood out to me was Sophia Burgos, whose amber tone and perfect clarity made her a joy to listen to, singing all of her selections with cool fluidity.

I find that different genres of performance each tend to get at a different part of the soul: opera, with its fusion of drama and music, is capable of inducing the strongest emotional reactions, be they of delight or grief. Symphonic concerts thrill with their enormous scale. Chamber and instrumental recitals are often cheering, creating a more casual connection between performers and listeners.

Song, well performed, can produce what feels like a philosophical crisis, the marriage of poetry and music cutting directly into the heart of the hearer, often in the most intimate of performance settings. Evenings like this one can leave an unwary audience member lost in thought for hours after the closing bars have sounded.

***

We love to sneer at summer festival programming. It’s an oft-repeated trope that off-season concerts are dominated by flashy crowd-pleasers, a swipe at both the institutions themselves and the people who attend them. The truth, of course, is somewhat more nuanced—while Tanglewood and its peers, like Chicago’s Ravinia, do feature “safer” lineups than you might encounter during the regular season, you're more likely to hear Mahler and Mendelssohn than Rimsky-Korsakov and Respighi.

But everyone indulges, from time to time. Among the summer highlights in Lenox-Stockbridge is “Tanglewood on Parade,” a day-long string of concerts by the BSO, Boston Pops, and TMC Fellows, culminating in a program of concert-hall hits and popular favorites—capped off with fireworks, of course.

Tuesday’s installment ended with a textbook summer celebration concert. Its opener was Michael Gandolfi’s Night Train to Perugia, a vivid, cinematic little number given with sparkling energy by the BSO. They followed with a stunning performance of Mozart’s Concerto in C for Flute and Harp, featuring the BSO principals, Elizabeth Rowe and Jessica Zhou.

Stéphane Denève led the TMC Orchestra in Ravel’s La Valse, a swirling gala piece that gets a bit carried away by its own excitement. John Williams, after taking in a rock-star reception, led several items from his film scores, including a Scherzo for X-Wing Fighters, a rushing, thrilling piece reminiscent of his best work from the original Star Wars trilogy.

Tuesday’s final item, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture itself encapsulates the enduring argument over crowd-pleasers. We have grown to resent its popularity, writing it off not just as jingoistic kitsch, but as foreign jingoistic kitsch. Tchaikovsky himself put the piece down, glumly observing that it would only ever be appreciated as anything more than nationalistic Russian pageantry.

In truth, though, “1812” is a powerful piece, charged with emotion, expressing in its short span awe, tenderness, anguish, joy, despair, and triumph. Sure, the coda has become a bombastic cliché (so have the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Triumphal March from Aida, and Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna,” just to name a few), but part of its brilliance is its sledgehammer poetry, exemplified nowhere more perfectly than in the sudden roar of “God Save the Tsar” as a barrage of artillery flattens the fife-and-drum march of the Grand Armée. The opening hymn (played on Tuesday in the instrumental version) is as moving a plea for deliverance as has ever been heard, and the fugue, given with verve by the combined forces of TMC and BSO under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, thrills with suspense. Tchaikovsky was wrong, and we are the richer for it.

A final note on ordnance: that famous cannonade in the coda, perhaps the most beloved percussion cue in musical history, is difficult to pull off, for obvious reasons. A bass drum is the most common solution for indoor performances. Firecrackers aren’t unheard of. Tanglewood used mortars supplied by a pyrotechnics contractor. I’ve even witnessed a mischievous clarinetist popping balloons on cue during a dress rehearsal.

In this country, summer performances in public spaces will often employ 150mm howitzers requisitioned from the local army base, which is certainly in the spirit of the exercise, if not quite right, sonically speaking. Modern artillery pieces tend to produce a loud "crack" rather than the much more satisfying “boom’ of nineteenth-century smooth-bore guns, startling rather than aweing the listener. Somebody ought to start a rental service for Napoleonic-era artillery batteries.

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