Even with a season shortened to six weeks due to pandemic, the young musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra had coalesced impressively as evidenced by their final concert on August 16th. TMCO delivered chestnuts by Smetana, Dvořák, and Vaughan Williams, plus a brief new piece by young African-American composer Brian Raphael Nabors.
TMC Fellow Kevin Fitzgerald took the podium to open with Nabors’s fanfare Iubilo and Smetana’s Vyšehrad. Iubilo lasts only two minutes, but hits its stride instantly with a simultaneous woodwind septuplet sweep and harp glisses that erupt from piano to fortissimo within the first bar. Nabors goes after an exuberant mood, and he achieves it with rich brass passages alternately supporting and dialoging with the strings, which carry the majority of the melodic material. Various iterations of the opening woodwind figure appear throughout with insistent timpani and woodblock strikes and cymbal rolls and crashes feeding the energy. In a dynamic tutti—strings and winds driving in eighth notes—the piece races to a close on a jubilant polychord.
A noble solo harp motif begins Vyšehrad (The High Castle), the first of Smetana’s six symphonic poems known collectively as Má vlast (My Country). Principal harpist Alyssa Katahara gracefully negotiated its contours leading to the exposition of the first theme: a heartfelt chorale melody sounded first in the brass. Opting to lead with wide hand gestures rather than baton, Fitrzgerald led the young musicians (plus a few BSO veterans) through the peaks and valleys of Smetana’s colorfully orchestrated account of the history of the tenth-century seat of Czech princes. The work portrays battles with vigorous march episodes before winding down peacefully with two harpists recalling the opening arpeggio figure and Smetana’s subdued orchestral dénouement that alludes to the flowing of the Vltava River at the foot of the hill where the castle once stood.
Under the baton of TMC Fellow Adam Hickox (son of late English conductor Richard Hickox), the strings performed Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis: one of the most beloved works of British musical giant Ralph Vaughan Williams. Author Michael Kennedy speaks of the work’s “grave beauty,” while a review of the premiere by Times critic J.A. Fuller Maitland notes that “one is never quite sure if one is listening to something very old or very new.”
A then-37-year-old RVW was commissioned to pen and conduct a short opening piece for the September 1, 1910 Three Choirs Festival at the Gloucester Cathedral by festival director Herbert Brewer. When queried by Herbert Howells (a Brewer composition student) about the music of the upcoming festival, Brewer is said to have mentioned “a strange composer” who would be bringing a strange work, “something to do with Tallis.” Though today this music is deemed more celestial than strange, Brewer was accurate about the work’s themes being based on a setting of a psalter text by Thomas Tallis in the 16th century.
The scoring is for strings divided into two orchestras and a string quartet. RVW designed the piece with the acoustics of the 11th-century stone cathedral in mind, spreading his forces across the church’s transept for dramatic antiphony. Like many concert venues, the Koussevitzky Music Shed stage does not allow for such spacing. Hickox—as other conductors do—placed orchestras I and II to his right and left and seated the soli quartet in a half circle in front of him.
The heavens seem to part in the first two bars as all three groups sounded the sublime sequence of massively spread triads (marked pianissimo, molto sostenuto) that creep in contrary motion before the texture thins to sustained octave Ds in the violins. A fragment of the Tallis theme sounds below in thunking bass, cello, viola pizzicatos in bar 4. Several bars later, the melody receives a more lyrical treatment when played arco by the second violins, violas and cellos. RVW then embarks on an epoch-defying exploration of slices of Tallis’s 27-bar tune linked together with his own transitional phrases.
The work—hailed by many critics as the quintessential string orchestra work—is a testament to RVW’s genius in discovering gorgeous facets of triadic harmony and deriving tremendous passion and color within the homogeneous sound of strings. Throughout, the architecture relies on ebbs and flows, at times juxtaposing and later combining the three groups in sundry configurations. The viola playing of Allyson Stibbards, appearing as a solitary voice about a quarter of the way through the composition and later in contrapuntal colloquy with other members of the soli group, deserves special notice.
Hickox moved economically as he guided his ensemble through the tonal and dynamic territory RVW charted. The composer made cuts after the premiere, feeling the duration of 19 minutes was too long. Recordings in recent decades clock in around 15–16 minutes, while some at slower tempos stretch it back to 19 minutes. In the middle, Hickox coaxed a rapturous 17-minute interpretation from his exceptional young charges.
Since its first hearing, this music has had an intoxicating effect on listeners. Howells and fellow Brewer pupil Ivor Gurney attended the premiere and were so affected by it that they reportedly “wandered the streets of Gloucester for hours, unwilling to return home and unable to sleep from the power of the experience they had just shared.” Before applauding, the Tanglewood audience sat stone-silent for a protracted moment, until the final, triumphant G-major triad dissolved into the air.
Stefan Asbury, the chief conductor of the Noord Netherlands Orkest who has led many of the world’s great orchestras, presided over the closer: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor. Asbury, a longtime TMC faculty member who holds the Sana H. Sabbagh master teaching chair on the conducting faculty, received an enthusiastic welcome.
With Asbury’s downbeat, the dark and brooding opening theme in the cellos and violas began unfolding and expanding rhythmically with input from other parts of the orchestra. The horn solo on the contrasting theme that follows introduced the burnished tone of this work’s principal hornist, Nathan Cloeter, whose solo and section playing would be spotlighted in the other movements as well. Also noteworthy throughout, but especially in the broad melody of the second subject, were the woodwind players led by principals Dominique Kim (flute), Alessandro Cirafici (oboe), Jakob Lenhardt (clarinet), and Morgan Davison (bassoon). Asbury deployed an arsenal of balletic arm, hand, and finger gestures to cue entrances and contour and balance the dynamic shapes of Dvorak’s brilliant orchestration through the movement’s chiaroscuro and mood shifts.
The wind choir occupies the focal point for the exposition of the main theme in the second movement. Writing in 1935, British musicologist Donald Tovey called this melody one of Dvorak’s finest and its emotionally probing sequel (introduced in the first violins), “one of the profoundest passages in any symphony since Beethoven.” The rich harmonic scheme of the development contributes to the gravitas. Dvořák momentarily unleashes the full power of the orchestra preceding a serene recap of the main theme in the latter bars. The plaintive melody passes from oboe to flute, the timbre of each shedding new light on its character. Asbury tapped his hand to his breast in a warm gesture to the performers after the movement finished.
The scherzo’s first theme has a joyous valse a deux-temps feel, which Asbury and the orchestra infused with real vitality. The strings earned our special commendation for crisp articulations in the melody. The trio theme shifts the action to winds, the dance becomes subdued, and the texture lightens. The section unfolds with chirping figures in the flutes and oboes, string pizzicatos, and staccato horn punctuations before a build to a recap of the dance melody. Asbury stoked the momentum while maintaining rhythmic and textural clarity as strings and winds traded runs and the brass alternated long notes with chordal jabs, ending the movement with punch.
The finale begins soberly, returning to the tragic ambiance of the first movement with the emergence of a dark chorale-like theme. Shafts of sunlight appear with the major-key second theme before the intensity mounts with rapid-tongued repeated notes in the winds and horns. During a subsequent dynamic trough, clarinetist Jakob Lenhardt nicely shaped another distinctive theme in triplets that arpeggiates a dominant seventh chord. It’s played later by different instruments as Dvořák develops, overlaps, and recaps the movement’s various themes. Asbury chose to stretch the time, slightly lengthening some lyrical phrases before charging headlong into a stormy rhythmic drive to the ending. This section is reminiscent of Brahms, whose third symphony was a high-water mark challenging Dvořák in the composition of this symphony. All is set aright when the powerful molto maestoso of the coda finally rests on a triumphant D-major triad.
The audience roared in approval vocally and with vigorous applause for the orchestra and Asbury, who made no fewer than three curtain calls, providing a salute to TMCO’s return to in-person form.