The Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood 'Berkshire Day' on Sunday 23 July 2023 began with an infrequently heard 'Ballade in A minor'. This was the orchestra's first rendering of this piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer of mixed African and English ancestry, better known in his day than our own.
Though he worked to advance Black artistry in the classical field, compositionally he was better known for tone-poem-like music that illustrated Native American life such as Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. Perhaps as a kind of cultural transposition of sounds native, conductor Thomas Wilkins carefully conducted this proto-cinematic folk adventure of the black atlantic that meets the rustic frontier.
Another first BSO performance, that of Jeff Midkiff's 'Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra', continues the theme of rustic Americana, both real and imagined. Informed by a background in bluegrass as well as classical, the mandolin makes for an improbably tinkerbell-like guide, an instrument of both small scale and one whose rough hewn character cannot be smoothed out entirely even in the hands of a great virtuoso like Midkiff. An aural journey that surveys the Blue Ridge landscape, Midkiff's windchimes then transform into a bluesy improvisation, even culminating into a 'hoe dow' where the first violin plunges into a relay of dancing frenetic runs.
Rounding out the well-computed program of vernacular music that fuses dance and frontier with the symphonic is Duke Ellington's Suite from the River, a music of eminent style and langor. A late work made to celebrate the American Ballet Theater, a Big Band Cotton Club like swing of the middle section admirably full percussion with remarkable snare work and a mellifluous bass set then takes its erotic undertones into the transcendental. The striking last movement pairs drums and harp into a proto-minimalist drone.
The BSO Tanglewood concert of Friday 28 July 2023, pairing the newly commissioned (2022) Her Story by Julia Wolfe and Mahler's 1st, presents no immediately obvious intertext. Meant to mark the centennial of women's electoral emancipation in 1919, the text largely illustrates the every potential terror of patriarchy and the struggle to emerge out from under it.
Gustav Mahler battled antisemitism in the Vienna of his day, changing his religion to advance in career while also wrestling with the constraints of the life of a conductor for a budding composer. Wolfe, known for her pioneering work with the avant garde music collective 'Bang on a Can', forges another breakthrough form of large-scale choral immersive featuring the Lorelei Ensemble, whose members vary costumes, painted hands and hoist various placards throughout the performance. The text is harvested from a rich source of documents, some of which are projected onto a screen pairing the history of text with a modernity of sound, as the musical idiom is clearly post-sixties post-modern.
Electric bows on a guitar, and a humming xylophone create an atmosphere of paranoia, minimalist shimmerings that brings the listener into the feeling world of the legacy of dreadful accusation against women.
Mahler was known for unsettling bathetic clashes of the high and low, culturally and sonically. His First Symphony already has the traces of the myriad in ways he would push the symphonic form to the point of bursting.
Appropriately conjuring the spirit of Bernstein, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero luxuriates in a quite cheerful rendering that also spares nothing from the thunder of its climaxes.
Copyright © 3 August 2023
Adam J Sacks,
Hong Kong, China