Imagine touring a great old cathedral with a guide who is herself a practicing architect. Observations, in such a case, might well be drawn from the inside out.
Something similar can occur when a seasoned composer picks up the baton to lead otherwise familiar repertory masterworks. Or that at least was the case on Sunday afternoon, when composer Thomas Adès led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a revelatory performance of two works by Sibelius alongside his own music, the “Powder Her Face” Suite, repeated from performances earlier this year in Symphony Hall.
As a conductor, Adès is by now experienced enough to communicate his ideas effectively to the orchestra. But he doesn’t wave a baton nearly enough to have any aspect of his performances come across as routine. In fact, his account of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony Sunday had that elusive crackle of generative energy, as if the work were not being simply re-performed yet again but rather re-assembled from scratch before our ears.
Adès has long had a special affinity for Sibelius and, in particular, the elemental sense of creative struggle he hears in this composer’s music and transmits so aptly, the churning depths beneath the pristine surfaces. The BSO played brilliantly for him on Sunday, and there was a daring quality to the placement of the symphony’s enormous final chords, a sense that the silence was not empty interstitial space but a compositional element chiseled into being no less forcefully than the surrounding music.
In Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Adès showed a similar knack for defamiliarizing aspects of the orchestral accompaniment. But here the spotlight was on the soloist Christian Tetzlaff, whose performances of the standard concerto repertoire often seem to rethink the range of expressive possibilities. In this case, Tetzlaff’s Sibelius was fresh in its bearing, kaleidoscopic in its colors, empathic in its connection to the music’s interior dramas, and simply blazing in its virtuosity. All in all, it was an extraordinary outing.
Another notable solo turn took place the previous evening, when BSO principal flute Elizabeth Rowe took up Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil,” a nocturne written in 1981 in memory of a 19-year-old Israeli flutist and soldier named Yadin Tenenbaum, who was killed in the line of duty during the Yom Kippur War. The work’s character is ruminative, with much of the solo writing conceived in a dreamily lyrical vein. For her part, Rowe performed with an uncommonly warm, liquid tone. On the podium was Herbert Blomstedt, who, at 91, still exerts a gentle if clear authority, as also evidenced by Saturday’s lithe accounts of Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 and Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass, the latter performed with Tanglewood Festival Chorus and a slate of capable soloists (Hannah Morrison, Elisabeth Kulman, Nicholas Phan and Michael Nagy).
On Monday evening, the attention shifted to Ozawa Hall, where the students at the Tanglewood Music Center were entrusted with one of the summer’s big premieres: a new work by the prominent Boston-based composer Michael Gandolfi titled “In America.”
The piece, scored for six vocal soloists and orchestra, was commissioned by the TMC as a response to Bernstein’s “Songfest,” which was itself originally commissioned to mark the US Bicentennial. It premiered, one year late, in 1977.
In approaching his assignment, Gandolfi apparently channeled something of Bernstein’s impulse to reflect the great American experiment back on itself through an eclectic choice of texts and musical styles. But while Gandolfi’s focus was initially on responding to contemporary life and politics, as he explained in a program note, the relentless daily news cycle routinely knocked him off his track. So he instead chose the longer view, collecting texts dating back over two centuries from poets such as Claude McKay and Alexander Posey as well as figures such as Walt Whitman, H.L. Mencken, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The perennial struggle toward a more perfect union became the work’s overarching theme, or in a Rosa Parks line prominently included near the end: “Stand for something, or you will fall for anything.”
Gandolfi has arranged his selections in three broad “panels” and set the texts to darkly dramatic music. You sense Gandolfi’s visceral struggle to remain optimistic in these politically surreal times. The score includes musical satire of American bombast, and overtly rageful passages in which voices lash the air like whips. And lest anyone’s attention drift off message, two maraca players stood at the edge of the stage on Sunday, emphatically driving the point home.
The piece, however, is at its most artistically persuasive not in its many high-exhortatory moments but on the rarer occasions that it tacks obliquely. The second song, “In America We Coin a Phrase,” is for instance a hilariously wry sendup of American bromides. The vocal soloists weave a complex quilt with clichéd phrases numbingly strung together: “As easy as pie”! “Pie in the sky”! “The whole nine yards”! “A piece of cake”! Below the humor there seems to lie a subtler point about the debasement of language and its alarming dissociation from truth. Or as Gandolfi quotes Mencken at another point in the score: “Our nation sold its honor for a phrase.”
The TMC Orchestra, playing under the direction of conducting fellow Gemma New, compensated in commitment for what it occasionally lacked in details of execution. The six vocal soloists, who at times were amplified in order to carry their voices over the thundering orchestra, revealed varying degrees of comfort with the challenging vocal writing. One might have expected that “Songfest” itself would be included in this program, but it will instead be performed later in the summer, on Aug. 4, by the BSO.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER ORCHESTRA
At: Tanglewood, Saturday through Monday.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.