Illuminating darkness in Weill and Shostakovich
LENOX — Some of the most memorable offerings of recent Tanglewood summers have been the staged theatrical productions of the Tanglewood Music Center, and a program Monday in Ozawa Hall proved that this year is no exception.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Seven Deadly Sins” was this year’s chosen work, and the night’s strikingly vibrant performance would have sufficed to make it a rewarding evening. But it was also capped by a riveting account of Shostakovich’s rarely spotted Symphony No. 14, a work of profound vision and harrowing beauty.
It’s been observed that the true spirit of Weimar-era Berlin came to its final flowering not in that city’s fabled cafes and theaters, but in exile — after the Nazis sent the leading lights of German culture scrambling across the globe. Weill and Brecht were of course two of those artists.
They had already given the world “The Threepenny Opera,” which endures as the emblematic sound of the era itself. And before they ended up living on opposite coasts of the United States, they joined forces in Paris for one last major collaboration. “The Seven Deadly Sins” was conceived as a “ballet with song,” each of its scenes devoted to one of the sins (Sloth, Pride, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Envy). They are revealed, we learn, through the travels of a young woman named Anna, who is journeying across America in search of a better life for her family.
And what a score Weill created for the occasion. The music brims with slyly insinuating rhythm, and it’s laced with the composer’s delectable tartness. But it also offers fleeting glimpses of a lyric warmth that in turn evokes the pain and melancholy behind Anna’s wandering, the humanity of this work beneath its prickly layers of Brechtian critique. The contradictions of capitalism itself are often said to have been the playwright’s satiric target, but the timing of the work’s creation in 1933 also inevitably suggests a wider indictment of a culture that had led Germany to the brink.
On Monday, the cast of TMC vocal fellows was strong across the board, but mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron as Anna was the charismatic star, projecting her character’s sass but also her sincerity, with a tone that was idiomatically dark and smoky. TMC conducting fellow Nuno Coelho led a smartly paced traversal of the score and drew solid playing from the orchestra. Add in Nicholas Muni’s tautly resourceful staging, and you had a performance with real teeth. The work also seemed oddly appropriate for our surreal year of electoral politics — surely more so than TMC administrators could have possibly imagined when they put it on the schedule.
Who knows which of the Seven Sins informed the choices of the Soviet official Pavel Apostolov, but when exposed to the piercing existential light of Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, they proved to be deadly. That’s at least one way to read the story — almost crudely novelistic, yet also true — that Apostolov, who had politically tormented the composer for years, was attending the first private performance of this score in Moscow when he suffered a heart attack and died.
The composer’s penultimate symphony is on many levels a death-shadowed work, written during a long hospital stay when Shostakovich’s health was poor enough that he worried about its completion. The score consists of 11 songs, most of them based on poetry by Lorca, Apollinaire, and Rilke, and set with an extraordinary spiritual penetration. The music haunts, grieves, rages. But it also traces the beauty of the world with a quietly sublime detachment.
Christian Reif was the sensitive conductor on Monday night. A capable group of TMC Vocal Fellows — Sarah Tuttle, Adriana Velinova, Quinn Middleman, Joel Balzun, and Keith Colclough — divided up the songs and delivered them with skill and directness. Dawn Upshaw and Sanford Sylvan, both TMC faculty members, performed alongside their students, taking one song apiece and demonstrating what it means to be a master of this art.
Not coincidentally, both Upshaw and Sylvan studied with soprano Phyllis Curtin (1921-2016), who taught a legendary master class at Tanglewood for decades. Appropriately, this concert was dedicated to her memory.
TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER ORCHESTRA
At Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Aug. 8