Reviews of Stravinsky and Mozart (and Mahler)

Reviews have trickled in for last weekend’s concert.  They’re not as harsh as I thought they would be, which just goes to show that it’s always easier to be hypercritical of one’s own performance.

Of the Stravinsky, Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe writes:

This was a surely paced, elegant performance with fine singing from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, conveying by turns the restrained serenity and the disquieting mystery at the core of this music.

We’ll take it.  As for the Mozart, he does not criticize the soloists as I did, writing:

Thomas and a keenly responsive chorus brought out the pathos and dark drama of this work, particularly in the “Rex Tremendae,’’ “Confutatis,’’ and “Lacrimosa’’ movements. Soile Isokoski, Kristine Jepson, Russell Thomas, and Jordan Bisch were the capable soloists.

For my wife’s performance of the Mahler 3, he notes that “The American Boychoir and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus turned in lively performances,” and offers minor criticism of the players.  (The orchestra on Saturday were Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, not the BSO as on Friday.  My wife thought they played with much more pathos though admittedly less technical merit… most notably when Maestro Thomas had to snap at an oboe player to get him to look up and pay attention to the tempo!)

The New York Times was complimentary but not as kind.  It praised Maestro Thomas for “keeping a firm grip on the young band” to produce “superbly balanced sonorities and stunning climaxes” in the Mahler 3 performance, though the reviewer caught that “Mr. Thomas was reduced at one point to snapping his fingers, evidently in response to a missed entrance in the wind section.”  About the chorus, James R. Oestreich had a lot to say after all:

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which John Oliver has developed into one of the nation’s outstanding choirs, and which also performs with the Boston Symphony at its home in Boston, is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and its program here with the orchestra on Friday night, Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Mozart’s Requiem, was particularly apt. […]

It was especially good to hear the 125-strong Tanglewood choir at full voice in the Mozart (with an orchestra about half that size). Now that decorously small, historically sanctioned choruses have become the norm in Mozart, it is good to be reminded of the punch this music can pack in an appropriate setting like the outdoor Shed. (Shaw used a chorus of 200.) And the singing was simply terrific, in moments of meditative quiet as well as at full throttle.

As usual on Mr. Oliver’s tight ship, the chorus performed from memory. Mr. Levine, in his time as the orchestra’s music director, has dispensed with a further trademark: Mr. Oliver’s favored seating plan, a complex interweaving of high and low, male and female, voice types. Now it is the standard left-to-right lineup: sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

The Stravinsky performance made a listener usually disinclined to second-guess Mr. Oliver wonder too about the wisdom of pointedly performing from memory. In the first two movements, somewhat diffuse in nature, attacks were often tentative, rhythms and pitches imprecise, despite the chorus’s recent experience with the work in Boston.

But by the third and final movement, with its repetitive textual and musical phraseology, the chorus was singing with its customary assurance and flair, with splendid results. Mr. Thomas’s incisive approach ideally suited Stravinsky’s guarded effusions, and the orchestra improbably carried it through on a soggy evening.

Quite a bit there!  I’ve never heard any reviewer point out that we no longer interleave the voices like we used to a few years ago.  I admit I prefer that “hashed chorus” greatly to what we do now, since it lets you hear what else is going on much better.  Supposedly conductors enjoy being able to cue the singers like they cue the cellos or the woodwinds or the brass.  But if we’re waiting for our cue, then we’re already screwed.

This reviewer called out our tentative attacks, and I agree we had some.  I’m betting we didn’t all have this as solidly memorized as we have other concerts.  But there was a curious lack of cues from Maestro Thomas compared to his explicit conducting during the choir and orchestra rehearsals, and I think it threw us a bit.  I also disagree with the reviewer: I think the first movement of the Stravinsky was pretty solid, the second had some flaws (our laudate dominum refrains were not together), and the third was where I felt we were really sort of out there.  Still I wouldn’t castigate the memorization philosophy for these faults.

A third review appeared in the Times Union newspaper, though Priscilla McLean spent a good part of the article discussing  the history of the pieces.  About the performers herself, she mentioned:

Stravinsky’s orchestration excludes violins, violas and clarinets, but is otherwise complete, allowing the upper voices in the chorus to be clearly heard while becoming part of the orchestral palette. This was carried off by the voices and instruments flawlessly.

The “Psalms” seems a more dire, solemn piece than, surprisingly, Mozart’s “Requiem,” and the third movement of the Stravinsky is a hymn of praise, but sounding more dirge-like than joyous. The contrast of the chorus singing long narrow phrases over the busy orchestra, which had more complex contrapuntal and rhythmic lines, made for interesting listening, with excellent tempi and fine balance between the different groups.

[…] The sections that are Mozart’s shine with clarity and variety, and a strange joy. Of the four vocal soloists, the soprano Soile Isokoski had the purest sound[…]

The most poignant and hauntingly powerful section was the Lacrimosa, with the chorus and an ominously beating timpani. […]

Michael Tilson Thomas, the BSO, chorus, and soloists were consistently first-rate. It is a joy to attend Tanglewood and hear such wonderful quality performance.

I’m surprised that the Berkshire Eagle didn’t put out a review or that I didn’t find any more online.  If I do, I’ll add them here.

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One response to “Reviews of Stravinsky and Mozart (and Mahler)

  1. You do know what you’re doing, so keep at it.
    Thank you!

    David,

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