LENOX — Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood, Michael Tilson Thomas, once closely associated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra but busy in recent years with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival. Choir in a moving interpretation of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Completing Tanglewood’s classic season with the Ninth is a tradition that dates back 25 years (with a COVID hiatus).
What makes a masterpiece? Definitions differ, but size is often considered a requirement (although there is such a thing as a miniature masterpiece). Picasso’s “Guernica” measures 11 1/2 feet by 25 1/2 feet. “War and Peace” has 1,200 pages. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is by far his greatest orchestral work, both in terms of content and duration. The last movement is about 30 minutes long and is clearly the best known of the four movements, containing as it does the choral and vocal setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (usually translated as “Ode to Joy”) . But the first three movements are also of an impressive scale, lasting a total of around 45 minutes. The masterpieces overflow.
Widespread admiration is also a characteristic of masterpieces. Beethoven’s Ninth is recognized worldwide as one of the great achievements of Western civilization. Every year in Osaka, Japan, 10,000 singers take part in a performance of the Ninth (known simply as “daiku” – “the great one”). It is not difficult to bring these volunteers together, even if they pay for the privilege of participating. In China from 1959 (and with the notable exception of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76), Beethoven was idolized for his triumph over personal adversity and his historic status as a revolutionary.
Sunday’s performance matched the demands of the job. The orchestra responded to the precision of Thomas’ conducting, particularly his tedious punctuation of endnotes. The orchestral strings have been laid out with historic precision, with the second violins on the right of the stage and the first violins on the left, thus making possible the kinds of stereophonic and echo effects that Beethoven wrote about in his score while allowing a wide sheet of sound when the two sections played together.
Thomas also brought out the wind section both as a whole and as individuals, accurately etching passages that are often lost in performance and highlighting the Symphony Orchestra’s superb playing of the main winds. from Boston. A surprising role has been given by Beethoven to the timpani, particularly in the second movement, where it often breaks up the lively rhythm on its own. Timothy Genis, as always, played with power and finesse. And the basses were superb in their unanimity and clarity of projection.
There are four vocal soloists, who sent their message of joy and human connection with precision, conviction and focus. The bass, tenor and alto singers shone convincingly with the warmth of Beethoven’s utopian vision.
Thomas clearly worked on Beethoven’s Ninth all his life, and its score and parts are laden with guidelines for accomplishing his views and ideas. But recently a new edition of Beethoven’s magnum opus has been published, after years and years of work, by the scientific team that makes up the research arm of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn – a house that was once the place birthplace of Beethoven and which now includes a museum, library, hoard of rare manuscripts, letters and other artifacts, and a research institute. Over time, conductors will have to grapple with all the new, significant, and carefully documented changes to the authorized score of Beethoven’s last symphony.
The Ives is a strange work, setting the King James version of Psalm 90 to mostly syllabic, homophonic music for choir and organ (and chimes, representing church bells), and experimenting, as Ives tends to do, with groups of chords, unusual dissonances and abrupt changes in dynamics. The choir, prepared and conducted by James Burton, rendered the work with both precision and passion. The all-volunteer Tanglewood Festival Chorus was founded in 1970 and now performs year-round with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, both in the summer and during Boston’s subscription season. James Burton is Chorus Director of the BSO, a newly created position, as well as Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, having taken over leadership of this group from John Oliver, who founded the choir and led it for forty -five years.
In the Ninth, the choir sang with pitch precision, superb balance and intense focus, contributing to the overwhelming nature of this rendition of Beethoven’s universally acclaimed masterpiece.
What: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Ives and Beethoven
Who: Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano; Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; Ben Bliss, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus with conductor James Burton
When: August 28
Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox