LENOX – Many concerts try to decorate our lives. More rarely, a concert tries to explain them.
Or if not to give the right answers then at least to pose the right questions.
So it was with a thoughtfully curated Boston Symphony Orchestra program on Saturday night at Tanglewood. The evening was conceived by the distinguished German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, whose yearly Tanglewood visits often arrive as nutritive infusions of musical seriousness. In this case, Dohnányi chose three works — Ives’s “The Unanswered Question,” Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony — each of which seems to look out on the same valley from a different mountain peak.
Which is to say they all address the same big existential themes — you know the ones: temporality, aging, fragility, contingency, mortality. That Dohnányi, 86, was forced to withdraw from the program for medical reasons and to cede responsibilities to a younger man, in this case BSO assistant conductor Ken-David Masur, seemed only to deepen the program’s broader resonance.
The Strauss and the Tchaikovsky are of course late works from their respective composers, but Ives sketched his brief and bewitching philosophical postcard in midlife, returning to it decades later. This music’s charisma comes in part from its diagrammatic clarity of statement. The strings secrete a kind of sonic mist of a glittering, weightless allure. Repeatedly a solo trumpet (on Saturday, the eloquent Thomas Rolfs) floats an interrogative phrase that represents, in Ives’s words, “the perennial question of existence.” To which a gaggle of woodwinds replies obliquely, increasing each time their levels of dissonance, clamor, and irresolution. Ives leaves us with a capacious silence.
If this work lands like a Zen koan, pondering the riddles of existence, Tchaikovsky’s beloved final symphony broods and fulminates. It is a searingly confessional diary written in a language that we as listeners understand but cannot translate. In this sense Tchaikovsky reaches for the universal through the particulars of his own inner life.
Strauss for his part flips the equation around, moving through the universal to the particular, choosing in his “Four Last Songs” texts of wide resonance (chief among them “Im Abendrot” by Eichendorff), and using them to shed profoundly moving light on his own life station. Indeed, one needs little tutoring in Strauss’s biography to sense the identity of the “travel-weary” wanderer appearing in this text, a man who, hand in hand with his life partner, now stares into the “evening glow” and wonders “could this perhaps be death?”
On Saturday night in the Shed, with the house lights cranked up to enable program reading, and the audience applauding after every song, the music’s spell was not cast at its full potential strength. But the soprano Renée Fleming delivered the songs engagingly, her voice still possessed of that cushioned, velvety radiance which has always made it seem like an instrument born for the music of Strauss. In the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (on a text by Hermann Hesse), concertmaster Malcolm Lowe floated a solo both songful and touching. At the podium, Masur’s direction was well-paced and sensitive, even if one wished at times for a sense of more space around the notes.
Fleming met the crowd’s delighted response with a fitting encore, “Cäcilie,” written by Straus decades earlier as a wedding offering to his wife Pauline. Here the geysers of ecstatic lyricism hold in their own way as truthful a mirror to the composer’s journey as does the glowing, slanted light of the autumnal last songs.
After intermission, Masur was in his element leading the Tchaikovsky, finding the right graceful gait for the second movement, and whipping up the requisite orchestral frenzy in the third. The BSO was in fine form, with a special nod due to Richard Svoboda’s dark amber bassoon solos.
Tchaikovsky concludes the raging storm of his “Pathètique” with a mysteriously quiet ending. In this evening’s company, it could only seem as if this composer, too, had arrived at a kindred insight: that the unquestioned answer is no match for the unanswered question.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Ken-David Masur, conductor. At Tanglewood, Saturday nightJeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.