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Music Review

At Tanglewood, remembering Bernstein in bronze and music

Bramwell Tovey leading the BSO in Tanglewood’s first-ever performance of Leonard Bernstein’s  “Candide” on Saturday night.

Hilary Scott

Bramwell Tovey leading the BSO in Tanglewood’s first-ever performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” on Saturday night.

LENOX — Almost a quarter-century after Leonard Bernstein’s death, his spirit still very much hovers over Tanglewood, a place he visited yearly, beginning with a six-week student sojourn in 1940 that he described as “the happiest and most productive of my life.” Those with long memories require little prompting to regale you with local Bernstein lore: his car on the grounds (license plate: Maestro 1), his cape (once worn by Serge Koussevitzky), and above all the incredible electricity that spread out over these verdant grounds during his annual concerts. And clearly no one present could forget the legendary final performance in 1990.

As of this summer, Bernstein’s spirit has a new physical embodiment on campus, courtesy of Penelope Jencks’s striking bronze sculpture, a gift of John Williams and his wife, now on view at Highwood (which, it’s worth mentioning, is open certain hours to the public for the first time). Bernstein’s music, too, was at center stage this weekend, with Tanglewood’s first-ever performance of “Candide” in the Shed on Saturday night.

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That “Candide” hadn’t been done here before may not be quite as surprising as it seems. Koussevitzky disapproved of Bernstein’s writing for Broadway, afraid that it would compromise his reputation as a composer of music for the concert hall. Bernstein revered “the Kouss,” as he affectionately dubbed him in letters to Copland, but this advice, like Koussevitzky’s suggestion that Bernstein change his last name, was obviously disregarded.

Still, when it came to the long and troubled gestation of “Candide,” there may well have been times when Bernstein wondered if Koussevitzky was right. “The hardest thing I ever tried,” is how he described his operetta adaptation of Voltaire in 1954. “It’s wrong the way it is now, that’s all I know,” he muttered the following year in a letter to his wife. “Candide” opened in 1956, but underwent revisions continuing to the end of Bernstein’s life.

Yet if “Candide” showed little of the broader resonance and instant lift-off of “West Side Story,” it remains beloved for its zany comedy and, most of all, for Bernstein’s glittering neoclassical score. In a way, the work’s political edges have dulled with time and manifold revisions. But it was first intended as a counter-blast, initially suggested by Lillian Hellman, against what its creators saw as the dominant trends of McCarthy-era America, once summarized by Bernstein as “puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, [and] essential superiority.”

Baritone Richard Suart drew a knowing laugh from Saturday’s crowd at the outset, when his narration, delivered with a delightful archness, referred to the political landscape of the 1950s and nodded implicitly to the present day. But in this vibrant concert performance of a 1993 version, it was of course the romance and comedy that dominated. On the podium, Bramwell Tovey led a taut and brisk reading of this score, while also demonstrating, as he did with “Porgy and Bess” a few summers back, no aversion to joining the stage action playing out around him. At one point in Act I, when poor Candide and Pangloss are about to be strung up in Lisbon, Tovey lowered a noose around Suart’s neck as the chorus zestfully sang: “What a day, what a day, for an auto-da-fé!”

Leading the cast, tenor Nicholas Phan sang Candide with tonal purity and impeccable control, though his dramatic vision for the role seemed less fully developed. Anna Christy pulled off Cunegonde with ample vocal agility and a knowing, sassy insouciance. And Frederica von Stade came out of semi-
retirement to bring glamor and a rather cautious vocalism to the role of the Old Lady, drawing
a cheer from the crowd the moment she stepped onstage. Many of the smaller roles were capably taken up by vocal fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center and even members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which not only sang well but threw itself wholeheartedly into the action, at one point pulling out red scarves and sombreros. Supertitles, alas, would have been helpful.

“Candide” was clearly the weekend’s telos, but the BSO also performed on Friday night under the baton of Stephane Deneve. Was the inclusion of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto on this program a coincidence? Probably, but those primed to hear it could also smile at another Bernsteinian nod, as the melody from “Somewhere” is lifted in part from this concerto’s slow movement. Emanuel Ax was the insightful soloist, though his chemistry with Deneve on this occasion seemed limited, and his account more episodic than one might have expected.

It’s probable that the evening’s second half commanded most of the rehearsal time, as it was given over to repertoire the BSO tackles far more rarely: Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” Cantata. It would have been nice to have the music here alongside footage from Serge Eisenstein’s iconic film, as the BSO once presented it under Seiji Ozawa, but Prokofiev’s score is cinematic enough to play out vividly in the mind while at the same time conjuring memories of the film, especially its unforgettable ice battle. Under Deneve’s baton, the orchestral playing was solid if seldom more. The TFC nonetheless delivered a rousing performance, with vocal soloist Elena Manistina lending an idiomatically veiled and dusky mezzo-soprano.

Stepping back, one might pause to wonder about the afterlife of “Alexander Nevsky” and how cleanly it has been separated from the film’s genesis as Stalinist propaganda. Would the music from a German propaganda film of the same period, no matter who composed or directed it, withstand a similarly wholesale transfer into the concert hall repertoire? A question for another time. . .

Both the weekend’s Russian second theme and its Bernsteinian overlay continued on Sunday afternoon with the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert. Charles Dutoit reported for duty, leading the excellent young musicians of this year’s Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in works by Stravinsky (a complete “Firebird” and “Scherzo Fantastique”) and Rachmaninoff. Nikolai Lugansky was the soloist for the latter’s Third Piano Concerto, winning over the Shed audience not through overt displays of rhapsodic firepower, but rather with playing of uncommon clarity and precision.

Under Dutoit’s baton the TMCO rose to many brilliant moments in the “The Firebird,” though stretches of less precisely characterized playing made one wonder if the complete version of the ballet was the best choice for this occasion. The weather on Sunday was once again in full cooperation, with swaying trees reflecting in the polish of the Steinway grand. The BSO’s summer season concludes this weekend with two more Dutoit-led programs, the second one capped by the annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com
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