MUSIC REVIEW: Upshaw, Shaham, Anthony and more at Tanglewood

Classical Music

Aug. 20 & 22, 2010


Review by Clarence Fanto


(LENOX, Mass., Aug. 23, 2010) — In this case, the violinist-couple that plays together stays together; Gil Shaham and his bride of nearly 12 years, the Tasmanian native Adele Anthony, exchanged lovey-dovey kisses after their collaborations on stage at Tanglewood Sunday (Aug. 22) on a program that looked to be a bizarre grab-bag but turned out to be an entertaining matinee of easy-on-the-ears music.



Shaham, 39, born in Illinois but raised in Israel, is a leading violinist of his generation (along with Joshua Bell), and as a frequent guest with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, he consistently lives up to his reputation. He tossed off his one solo outing on this program, Pablo de Sarasate's charming but devilishly challenging Zigeunerweisen ("Gypsy Airs") with flair and top-flight technical skills. A high-wire act, performed with the greatest of ease.


First played at a BSO concert in 1968 by comedian-fiddler Jack Benny (no joke!) under the orchestra's music director, Erich Leinsdorf, this bon-bon transforms Hungarian folk airs into a rich paprika of harmonics, trills, pizzicati and just about every other technical trick up a violinist's sleeve. It opens with a faux-solemn, full-orchestra statement but quickly transitions to a whirling-dervish cadenza. Shaham and the orchestra, led with energy and vivacity by the fiery Venezuelan conductor Giancarlo Guerrero in his BSO debut, performed this tasty concoction to the hilt — a fine display of virtuosity all around.


Anthony, sweet-toned and perfectly competent, had her moments in the spotlight with Sarasate's "El canto del ruisenor," one of the great violinist-composer's parade pieces and still a challenge for any classically-trained fiddler (she's a Juilliard graduate). Except for a brief mishap during the harmonics, she re-created Sarasate's vivid portrayal of a nightingale in song and in flight with requisite skill.


Sarasate, who toured the U.S. and the rest of the world to great acclaim during the second half of the 19th century, intended these works as a demonstration of his wizard-like talents, reminiscent of Paganini; they make an ideal showcase for the Shaham duo, who performed side by side his "Navarra" for two violins and orchestra.


Perhaps only Anthony would dare partner with her husband on stage; as it turned out, she had nothing to fear, having negotiated the demands of Bach's Double Violin Concerto in d minor during the first half of the program.  After hearing too many buttoned-down "authentic period instrument" renderings of this vivacious work, it was a treat to hear a full-bodied, old-fashioned interpretation of the type common 50 years ago. Retro, no doubt, but a delightfully nostalgic trip on a musical time-machine.


The rapidly-rising Guerrero, born in Venezuela and raised in Costa Rica, swoops, sashays and sizzles on the podium in true Bernsteinian fashion — much to the delight of the audience and (maybe or maybe not) the players. He certainly gets prime results, as in his opener, Jennifer Higdon's shimmering "blue cathedral," an imaginary journey "through a glass cathedral in the sky," as her program note described the 13-minute work.


Premiered in 2000 and performed by more than 250 orchestras since, this tone poem by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Higdon (for her Violin Concerto) has been championed by last weekend's BSO guest conductor, Robert Spano, who has mentored Higdon and from his Atlanta Symphony podium, has played a major role in her emergence to the top ranks of contemporary American composers.


Completed shortly after the death of her younger brother, Andrew Blue, Higdon created a sound-world of exquisite beauty around flute (the instrument she plays) and clarinet solos (her brother's instrument). "This is a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life," she wrote. Filled with other-worldly sounds created by the harp, celesta, and as many as 50 metallic Chinese healing balls filled with chimes, "blue cathedral" exemplifies the accessible yet fully contemporary approach of composers such as Higdon, Christopher Rouse, John Adams and Joan Tower, among dozens more. Tonality lives!


The effervescent Guerrero — music director of the Nashville Symphony and the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony — filled out the program with Suppe's pops overture"Poet and Peasant" (another BSO debut) and Bizet's "Carmen Suite," both conducted with verve and joie de vivre. Let's hope he's rebooked for next summer in more substantive fare, as enjoyable as this potpourri turned out to be.


Friday night's concert featured the always-welcome return of soprano Dawn Upshaw, who directs the vocal-arts graduate program at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in Rhinecliff, N.Y. and also teaches at the Tanglewood Music Center. A much-loved artist who champions contemporary composers, her performance of Osvaldo Golijov's Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra ("Lullaby-Close Your Eyes," "Moon, Colorless" and Emily Dickinson's "How Slow the Wind") transported listeners into a better world of harmony, beauty and tranquility. She premiered these songs in 2002, and vividly captures their unique character. At 50, and having recovered from a bout with cancer 6 years ago, Upshaw retains most of her unmistakable vocal prowess, alternately supple and strong.


Upshaw also performed a series from Joseph Canteloupe's 1920s collection of "Songs of the Auvergne," conveying the color and vibrancy of these folk-song based adaptations from the mountains of south France in their original regional dialect, Occitan. That's the Romance language spoken in Occitania, a region comprising parts of Southern France, the Occitan Valleys of Italy and Monaco, and the Aran Valley of Spain.


Former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot, appearing here en route to his directorship of the Seattle Symphony, provided idiomatic support for this set of lively, dolorous and licentious songs. But his curtain-raiser, Mozart's Symphony No. 31, "Paris," was somewhat routine, though well-played by the orchestra, and his complete Ravel "Mother Goose" ballet seemed curiously understated and bland, with the concluding "Fairy Garden" taken at a rapid clip and failing to stir the soul. Perhaps an off-night for the well-regarded Morlot.


Clarence Fanto reviews music for and is a contributing editor of Berkshire Living.


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