Hot Night in Tanglewood

Don Quixote, Stalin, and a deadbeat 18th century nobleman trigger musical magic at a series of concerts in the Berkshires.

By Mark Kroll

TANGLEWOOD, Mass.—What could Don Quixote, Josef Stalin, and a deadbeat 18th-century French nobleman possibly have in common? The answer: Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony‘s three concerts on the weekend of August 12-14 were each influenced by one of these historical figures. Don Quixote was the subject of the first program, the shadow of Josef Stalin hovered over the second, and a work on the final concert involved a Duke who skipped town without paying the bill. Add the nail-biting last minute replacement of a major soloist to the mix, and you couldn’t ask for a more exciting series of concerts.

The weekend began with a repetition of the program the BSO had performed at Symphony Hall last February to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the publication of Miguel Cervantes’ immortal “Don Quixote.” It featured Manuel de Falla’s astringent 20th-century masterpiece “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” and Richard Strauss‘ gargantuan expression of late 19th-century German romanticism, “Don Quixote.” Strauss calls for a huge orchestra, including a wind machine, and two soloists to represent the heroes of the story — a viola for Sancho Panza (played by BSO Principal Steven Ansell) and a fiendishly difficult solo cello part for Don Quixote, to be performed by guest cellist Truls Mork.

Everything seemed all set until BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg received a telephone call on Monday at 4 p.m. from Mork’s manger informing him that Mork had to cancel because of an injury to his hand. Fogg found himself with less than 48 hours to find a world-class cellist who knew the part, was available to play it, and hopefully didn’t require a visa (a procedure made nightmarish by the Department of Homeland Security since 9/11).

Undaunted, Fogg immediately sprang into action. He called his A-list cellists, such as Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell but they are probably booked solid until the year 2020. Fogg then turned to the rising young German cellist Daniel Muller-Schott, who was performing at the nearby Saratoga Festival and had played the Strauss with the Philadelphia Orchestra the previous season. No luck. Muller-Schott had a recital on the evening of the second rehearsal, and a recording session the following Monday.

Fogg ultimately found his Don Quixote in Finland, where the Chinese cellist Jian Wang was vacationing. Wang had first achieved international recognition as a gifted youngster when he appeared in Isaac Stern’s 1978 film “From Mao to Mozart,” and Fogg tells us that he had known and admired him for years. Best of all, Wang had a green card! The cellist hopped on the first plane out of Helsinki, arrived in time for his one and only rehearsal on Thursday, and the Strauss sounded as if conductor Rafael Fr?de Burgos, orchestra and soloists had worked together for years.

The Saturday concert required yet another substitution. Conductor James Conlon had been forced to withdraw several months earlier because of a scheduling conflict, and Sir Andrew Davis stepped in, replacing the originally scheduled Shostakovich 7th symphony with one of his favorites, symphony number 10 in E-minor. Enter Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator had made Shostakovich’s life miserable after the disastrous premiere of the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” in the 1930s, leading to 20 years of isolation and bitterness for Shostakovich. After Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 (the same day, ironically, that Prokofieff died), Shostakovich began work on his tenth symphony and premiered it on December 17, 1953 to rave reviews.

Shostakovich always denied there were any personal messages in this work, but the autobiographical references are unmistakable, especially the use of the letters in his name — D-S-C-H (the notes D, E-flat, C and B in German notation) — as the pitches of the principal melody. These four notes are heard repeatedly throughout the symphony, with an almost desperate insistence, as if, according to one commentator, the composer was shouting to the world “I’m still here!” The BSO was at the top of its game for this concert, and so was the violinist Gil Shaham, who gave an elegant rendition of Mozart’s “Violin Concerto no. 4 in D major,” K. 218.

It was all Mozart for the Sunday afternoon concert, in a program that included the “Prague Symphony” and the “Concerto for Flute and Harp.” Sir Davis was again on the podium, this time as scheduled, and the concerto soloists were Ann Hobson Pilot, principal harpist of the orchestra, and that pied piper of the flute, Sir James Galway (is it my imagination, or does it seem that everyone is being dubbed a Sir or a Saint these days?). The concerto was commissioned by that infamous nobleman I mentioned, the Duc de Guines, who gave Mozart yet one more reason to hate Paris . When the time came for Mozart to collect his fee for both the commission and the 24 lessons he had given the Duke’s daughter, de Guines was nowhere to be found. In his place was the hapless housekeeper, who could only pay half the amount. A sardonic Mozart wrote to his father: “There’s noble treatment for you!”

Nevertheless, the audience certainly got their money’s worth at this concert. The Prague symphony was beautifully shaped, Pilot’s performance was sure and stylish, but Galway, unquestionably a great virtuoso flutist, continues to disappoint. He seems more interested in showmanship than substance, and Galway’s stage antics often make his intonation go sharp. No matter. Galway is a real crowd pleaser, and he would probably say the same thing to such criticism that Liberace did: “I’ll cry all the way to the bank.” Well, Mozart was supposed to have hated the flute anyhow.

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