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Mixed Messages
By B.A. Nilsson

The New York Philharmonic
Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass., July 20-21

Sunday afternoon, you fought to get in and out of the Tanglewood parking lots. Sunday evening, you pretty much had the place to yourself. That’s because it was Beethoven during the day, new music at night.

More to the point, Sunday afternoon’s concert was music director Kurt Masur’s absolutely last, final, that’s-it performance conducting the New York Philharmonic, and his two Tanglewood concerts (Saturday night was the other) were a lovefest of basic rep pieces played with all the splendor and bombast the crew could muster.

The good old symphonies are safe orchestral ground, and Masur couldn’t have picked two more dynamic works than Mahler’s First and Beethoven’s Third. The Mahler, performed Saturday night, is a bear hug of a work, going nuts for nature in the first movement, singing a merry peasant dance in the second, sounding a bizarre funeral knell to a minor-key version of Frère Jacques in the third, and finishing with a thunderclap and one of the more roof- rattling finales in the repertory.

Great stuff, and a heaping plate of meat and potatoes for Masur and the orchestra (which, years ago, had Mahler at its helm). The piece was nuanced to a fare-thee-well, each waltz strain imbued with just the right rubato, each bird call sounding suitably spontaneous.

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, subtitled the Eroica, is another Big Work, and one that changed the symphonic language. It sounds pretty tame these days, but Masur informed it with the right sense of wit and dramatics to remind us why it was once so controversial.

Wit is a Beethoven hallmark, and his Emperor Concerto, for piano and orchestra, has a number of sly grins behind its magisterial themework. Soloist Yefim Bronfman has a sure-fingered, virile technique, but he seemed to think he was in a Rachmaninoff concerto, and simply banged the hell out of the keyboard. Did he rehearse with the orchestra? He finished phrases oddly out of sync with them, and Masur, at least, tends to be more careful than that.

By contrast, New York Philharmonic first-chair violinist Glenn Dicterow and cellist Carter Brey were right on the money in the Brahms Double Concerto. They brought out all the Gypsy fun of the work, with an orchestra that couldn’t have been more sympathetic.

Students and faculty at the Tanglewood Music Center presented the first of six concerts devoted to American music written in the past 15 years, an ambitious and absolutely necessary undertaking. Orchestral works by Frank Zappa and John Adams bracketed the program: Zappa’s fiendishly difficult G-Spot Tornado, written for Synclavier and later arranged for orchestra, is a rollicking, jazzy dance that suffered only from some muddiness in the instrumental mix. Adams’ Chamber Symphony takes itself much more seriously; while less annoyingly minimalist than much of Adams’ other work, it still at times sounds dense for the sake of sounding dense.

Two movements from Evan Chambers’s Cold Water, Dry Stone paid tribute to the composer’s 1995 trip to Albania and evokes an Eastern feel in its impressionist use of a small, marimba-enriched chamber ensemble. Wispy, mesmerizing themes developed and evanesced, rendered with heart and precision by the ensemble. Similarly, virtuosity was the watchword for cellist Mickey Katz and violinist Caroline Pliszka in Leon Kirchner’s brooding, difficult Triptych.

The soul of the concert was four song settings by William Bolcom. “Twilight: After Haying” and “The Clearing” are both pastoral texts with an undercurrent of loss by Jane Kenyon, sung with ease and charm by tenor John McMunn, about and from whom I expect we’ll hear more in years to come. Marianne Moore’s “Oh to Be a Dragon” reminded us of Bolcom’s terrific humor, well served by McMunn and pianist Alison D’Amato. Eric Shaw was the tenor for “September 1, 1939,” a setting of Auden, and the politically polemic cry for resistance against authority rings ever more true today. The setting was spare, the words cut like razors, and we were reminded how necessary is a mix of music like this.

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