LENOX — It’s fortunate that the Berkshires’ famously volatile weather behaved itself on Wednesday evening. Otherwise a full lawn’s worth of eager listeners at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall would have been disappointed. The building itself was packed to the rafters; the tickets in everyone’s hands said “Renée Fleming/Emerson String Quartet,” but that only began to cover what was happening.
The first half of the concert belonged to the string quartet and struck a distinctly elegiac note, with poignant traversals of George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Samuel Barber’s String Quartet. Sandwiched between those two was Richard Wernick’s String Quartet No. 10, a somewhat opaque work of harsh beauty written for the Emerson foursome.
In the second half, “Penelope,” the final work by the late composer/pianist/conductor André Previn, received its world premiere at the hands of the quartet, Fleming, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and — in a relatively late addition to the program — actress Uma Thurman. The librettist, British playwright Tom Stoppard (of “Arcadia” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” fame) was watching from an aisle seat.
Music that a composer leaves unfinished at death tends to draw a certain mystique: Mozart’s Requiem, Puccini’s “Turandot,” Jeff Buckley’s “Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk”. . . the list goes on. “Penelope,” a monodrama from the point of view of the clever, loyal wife in Homer’s “Odyssey,” was reportedly nearly complete when Previn died in February at age 89, and performances had already been announced for this summer as part of a larger celebration of his 90th birthday. With news of his death, festivities became memorials.
“Penelope,” a Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commission, was ultimately realized by Previn’s editor David Fetherolf with help from Fleming, Dinnerstein, and Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker. It’s an ambitious work with a lot of moving parts, and in this premiere performance, it didn’t feel like everyone was sure how those parts fit together. The speaker and singer took turns with Penelope’s voice, sometimes mid-sentence. The quartet and Dinnerstein largely reflected or illustrated Penelope’s emotional state and surroundings: gritty turmoil when Odysseus departed for war, fluttering, hopeful pizzicato when Penelope recognized her husband in his guise as a beggar.
Stoppard’s libretto is poetic but linear, full of juicy similes and winding sentences. Here the performance hit one major snag. When Fleming was singing, few of her words could be discerned, and the performance did not use supertitles. Those with good eyesight could read the libretto in the program, but that came at the cost of watching the action onstage. The soprano’s part was written specifically for Fleming, and she sang with rosy, lush sweetness, adding hints of mischief near the end, but struggled to stay atop the notes in some more agitated sections.
The cynical burr in Thurman’s voice recalled her narration as the vengeful, complex Bride in the “Kill Bill” films. She never seemed quite at ease with declaiming along with the quartet, and a mechanical staccato often crept into her phrases. The quartet and pianist were placed at center stage between the soprano and actress, which created a strange sense of distance between the two.
I wondered what could have been, had everyone on this all-star bill had more time. Had Thurman had more time to settle into the role and the unique demands of reciting over music. Had Previn lived to complete — and inevitably revise — “Penelope.” But such are the frustrations of life, and death; we don’t always get to choose what we leave behind when time runs out.
EMERSON STRING QUARTET
Featuring Renée Fleming, Simone Dinnerstein, and Uma Thurman. July 24. Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.