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Tanglewood Fellows Take on Weighty Subjects with Aplomb

TMC Vocal Fellow Fleur Barron and Dominik Belavy perform in Seven Deadly Sins in Ozawa Hall (photo by Hilary Scott)

It is a rare night when one can experience as varied a program as Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, described by the composer as a ballet with song. The occasion was an evening concert by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the TMC Vocal Fellows, some of the world’s most talented college-age and graduate-student musicians and singers.

Weill had recently escaped Germany, and arrest by the Gestapo, in 1933 when he collaborated in Paris with his former partner Bertolt Brecht on The Seven Deadly Sins, a commission from George Balanchine’s new dance company, Les Ballets. Brecht disliked ballet but proposed a hybrid: a cantata with dance. It tells the story of a girl named Anna from Louisiana. Anna’s dual sides were to be assumed by two women: Anna I, played by a singer, is practical; Anna II, a dancer, is beautiful but careless. Weill’s estranged wife, Lotte Lenya, was the original Anna I. Backing Anna is a quartet of male singers, a Greek chorus of sorts, representing her family.

Anna leaves her family in Louisiana to seek her destiny on a seven-year, seven-city U.S. trip. Her orders are to to make money and send it home so the family can build “a cozy house” on the banks of the Mississippi. At each stop along Anna’s journey another deadly sin is encountered, beginning with sloth, moving to pride, anger, gluttony, lust, avarice, and ending with envy. In reality, the work is a critique of capitalism and world politics, understandable given the ordeal Weill and Brecht, both of whom had to flee Germany, had undergone.

Other Articles:

Jeremy Eichler, Illuminating darkness in Weill and Shostakovich (Boston Globe, August 10)

Andrew L. Pincus, Two howls of protest in TMCO double bill of works from the dark days of the 20th century (Berkshire Eagle, August 9)

Charles T. Downey, From the NSO, a pops concert that fizzled (Washington Post, April 29)
The TMC performance altered things slightly, with both sides of Anna played by the English mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, who was asked to sing and dance. Barron’s voice was clear and pleasant, and at times the brass of the large orchestra drowned her out, but this is a quibble. Where she excelled was crafting a character, using her voice, stage presence and just enough dance movement. It was a dazzling performance. Kudos, too, to her ‘family’ of Daveed Buzaglo, Christopher Sokolski, Ryne Cherry, and T. Hastings Reeves, whose ensemble and solo singing were highlights. The stage director and designer Nic Muni, a TMC faculty member, used a sparse stage well. Portuguese conducting fellow Nuno Coelho was an appropriate choice to lead the orchestra, which he did expertly. Recently appointed assistant conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Coelho is attending Tanglewood on a Maurice Abravanel Scholarship. Abravenel was the conductor for Seven Deadly Sins’ first performance in 1933.

While Seven Deadly Sins contained flecks of humor, nothing approaching a laugh enters Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony, which centers on death. Concerned for his health after a massive heart attack in 1966, Shostakovich composed this non-symphony-like symphony, in 10 movements, for 19 strings, 10 percussion instruments, soprano and bass. Despite its singular subject matter, the work was a revelation, if a sobering one. Led with great sensitivity and skill by Christian Reif, recently appointed resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, the soprano and bass solos were handled by five TMC Vocal Fellows and two TMC Vocal Fellow alums/faculty members: Dawn Upshaw and Sanford Sylvan. The variety of voices was a welcome update to the work, which has the vocalists singing death poems by four different authors.

The acoustics and intimacy of Seiji Ozawa Hall helped highlight Shostakovich’s orchestration. Featuring some of the most difficult string parts in the repertoire, the symphony evokes the somber tone of death with a series of solos for principal players of the lower strings: violas, celli, and basses, eschewing the sweeter sound of the violin. In addition, Shostakovich frequently has section members join the principal after a solo. Accompanied mostly by a solo cello, played gorgeously by Andrew Laven, Ms. Upshaw was in splendid voice during the spare fourth movement. Later, in the ninth movement, a gorgeous cello trio accompanied Sylvan to poignant effect. While the symphony’s texts are depressing, the performance of them was masterful.

The seats in the hall for this Monday evening performance seemed about 80% full, but the lawn attendance, on a beautiful, cool, clear night was sparse. For the 2nd half, when many in the Deadly Sins orchestra were able to sit in the audience to hear the Shostakovich, the room filled up to about 90%. The lawn and Shed crowds on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were noticeably smaller than in the past. Sunday especially was generally a near sell-out in the Shed in most years. Not so this past Sunday where wide swaths of empty seats could be seen up front and in the back. In previous years to make your way through the lawn you literally had to step on peoples' picnic blankets. That was not the case this weekend. There was plenty of room to walk between picnic parties. Hopefully, this dip in attendance was only a momentary blip and not an indication of a general trend.

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