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A Chamber-Scale Odyssey with Many Champions

Tanglewood’s Ozawa Corridor was full to bursting on Wednesday night for a dramatic modern recital by the Emerson String Quartet et alia, capped by the world premiere of Penelope, David Fetherolf’s completion of André Previn’s last composition. The glittering roster of performing and literary guest artists included soprano Reneé Fleming, actress Uma Thurman, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and playwright Tom Stoppard.

The much-awarded Emersons simply accomplished a season in residence at the Smithsonian Establishment and keep a educating dedication to Stony Brook College, the place its members — violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins — are on the school.

Beginning with an extended look forward to the audience to quiet, the first half of the program featured actions from three contrasting American string quartets, opening with the stunning Lyric for Strings movement (second) from George Theophilus Walker’s 1946 String Quartet No. 1. A graduate of Oberlin, Curtis, and Eastman who died last yr, Walker studied with Nadia Boulanger and Rudolf Serkin before embarking on a 50-year career as organist, pianist, composer, and school professor. He was the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition, in 1996, for Lilacs for voice and orchestra, premiered by the BSO underneath Ozawa. A vibrant and flashy live performance pianist, he was also the primary African American to recital at Manhattan’s Town Corridor and to solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He revealed a thoughtful autobiography in 2009, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist.

Initially titled Lament, the luxurious piece resides principally within the strings’ low register and was a stunning solution to open the event, matching the cool night scene perfectly. For this single movement the Emersons produced their greatest sound of the night time, a shocking, heat variety of tone that eased the audience into contemplative silence.

Complicated and difficult music lay at the coronary heart of the first half: Richard Wernick’s new String Quartet No. 10, premiered by the Emersons last March within the new Pierre Boulez Saal, in Berlin. Its collection of sections, grouped into three movements, have been played with out pause.

Constructing on his progressive String Quartet No. four, composed for a similar ensemble in 1989, this work features “two first violin parts” of equal virtuosity. Played with such virtuosity, the music comes across as a mixture of contrapuntal webs interwoven with sustained dissonances; the fugal passages are a real exercise for the strings with the violins often in the stratosphere, framed by pianissimo echoing consonant melodies. In accordance with the composer, the first motion’s “somewhat inebriate” central Fuga Pomposa “presents the subject in the second violin, with the answer coming from the first violin in larger note values, at a different speed, and upside down.” The second movement quotes from Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang [from Opus 132], and “the Lamentoso third movement is a Coda to the extent that it is a playing out of the bolero-type dance rhythm from the first movement.”

The half concluded with a shifting rendition of Samuel Barber’s early String Quartet. The audience murmured with recognition at the famous central Adagio (in style as both the orchestral Adagio for Strings and the choral Agnus Dei). Due to the shortage of orchestral density, the individual melodies strained barely out of tune (perhaps purposefully), giving Barber’s contrapuntal, ascending phrases additional poignancy. The very brief remaining motion (Molto allegro) was performed in a more reserved interpretation than is typical, and we listeners have been the richer for it.

The large draw of the night was the star-studded world premiere of Penelope (2019), framed by in depth notes and concluding remarks celebrating the lifetime of André Previn, who died last February. This work is a tableau with Stoppard’s clever narrative divided fairly evenly between a recitative-like soprano (written for Reneé Fleming, and similar to a few of Previn’s earlier music for her from his opera Streetcar) and satirical, pithy commentary from a spoken narrator (delivered to life by the alternatingly seductive and hilarious Uma Thurman). Performances of Penelope will comply with quickly at Ravinia and Aspen and on the Kennedy Middle next Might.

Fleming was in nice voice, her English diction so crisp that you possibly can put this system down and simply take pleasure in watching (although the lights have been left up inside Ozawa Hall and most followed along with Stoppard’s libretto). Since her BSO debut at Tanglewood, in 1991, Fleming has had a huge effect on classical efficiency and commissioning on this country: she is that this summer time’s Koussevitzky Artist, and sings in another BSO-commissioned world premiere, Kevin Places’s The Brightness of Mild, in addition to offering masterclasses with young singers of TMC and collaborating in two Tanglewood Studying Institute periods.

Assisted by Eric Valliere, Uma Thurman was a tremendous narrator, bringing to life with character and humor Stoppard’s witty wordplay. The spoken textual content is nearly by no means meant to be read in rhythm, although roughly half of the narration was accompanied by strings and/or piano. In a couple of places Thurman stopped in midphrase for a musical impact to complete after which full the sentence; like Peter and the Wolf, much of the “background” music was onomatopoeic, dissonant with moments of consonance, and playful in a approach that sustained the viewers’s interest and supported the narrative. Although Thurman was miked, the other six performers were not; further microphones scattered across the stage allowed for a classy balancing of the sound to be projected to the various listeners out on the garden. Like the 2 voices of Penelope, Previn meant the piano and quartet to be treated as unbiased entities for a lot of the piece, every enhancing the voices and each, in the substantial passages without voice, evoking the intensity and nervousness of the unstated action.

The score rigorously balances music and speech, crafted, finished, and edited by David Fetherolf. His program notes revealed the difficulties in finishing the work: “André Previn died before completing his last composition […] however he had however executed very substantial work on it. André’s commissioners, publisher, and agents consulted among themselves and asked me, his editor of 22 years and close pal, to collect up what he had completed and, if attainable, to convey it to conclusion.

“About two weeks after André’s dying, I met [his son] Matthew at the condominium and was given a pile of manuscript pages. As was typically the case with André’s compositions, there have been no bar numbers and few page numbers. Luckily, Tom Stoppard’s textual content was there, which guided me in putting the pages in right order. Nevertheless, there were many more pages than wanted; in some, textual content was unaccompanied while in others the identical textual content was accompanied. There were additionally some pages which have been barely sketched in. I received every thing in order and had my first meeting with soprano Renée Fleming, the Emerson Quartet’s first violinist, Eugene Drucker, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. I went by way of the manuscript with them and we decided that I should set all the things André had set, and then in rehearsal we might see what labored.

“André had advised me that Penelope was about thirty-seven minutes lengthy, however at our first rehearsal we found that it was almost an hour…. Renée had her personal libretto with sections marked ‘spoken’ and ‘sung’. It was as if André was enjoying round with things he knew wouldn’t be set and, in some of them (none that I used), there have been even different orchestral devices written in. I’ll guess he was hearing a full orchestration of the work sooner or later. Last, I gave Penelope the dedication I do know André would have used: to Renée.

Tom Stoppard’s exceptional contribution to Penelope may be learn in its entirety as a part of the program notes for the event HERE. Stoppard spoke about his connection to Previn and contributed written remarks concerning the genesis of the work: “‘Listen, if you ever want to write something which needs a symphony orchestra, I’ve acquired one.’ This was André Previn in 1974 in London. We met when his spouse Mia was rehearsing a play by Lorca for which I had made an English version. André had been principal conductor of the London Symphony since 1969 and he was a household identify in Britain. We took to each other immediately. Who couldn’t take to André? He was, regardless of himself, glamorous. He was sensible, funny, with Beatle seems, an enormous hit with the LSO, and a well-liked favorite on TV. When he provided me an orchestra, so to talk, I accepted on the spot. It took some time for us to arrive at the right concept however the outcome was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), which he carried out at the Royal Pageant Corridor, a Royal Shakespeare Firm manufacturing directed by Trevor Nunn.

“When I made my debut and swansong as a songwriter for Rough Crossing, my adaptation for a play by Ferenc Molnár, André obliged with two deft charming tunes” and tried “to persuade me to collaborate on an opera. I had to insist I didn’t know how, and as the years went by, André switched to the idea of my writing a monodrama, specifically for his friend Renée Fleming.”

Stoppard summarizes the plot: it is “the story of Penelope, the loyal and steadfast wife of Odysseus, who waited ten years for her man to win the Trojan War and ten more for him to make his way home. It had love, it had grief, it had drama, it had a happy ending.” Stoppard additionally described the process of creating the work: “André at the keyboard in his flat in Manhattan, with Renée dropping by to look over his shoulder at the pencilled score (which I couldn’t read). His gallantry carried him to see Renée in Carousel on Broadway and again to see my play The Hard Problem, and it was quite a business getting him into and out of a car. He watched my play from a wheelchair. That was last November. When I returned home to England, André had virtually finished Penelope. … I would guess he was still busy with something right up to the day he went to hospital. Previn’s Penelope, which would have been a 90th-birthday present to himself, is now in memoriam.”

The work closed with a nod to classical plays, evoking rosy-fingered daybreak and leaving us with the narrator’s voice: “I asked no more, but went to sleep in his arms. May Penelope the Wise be my fame and title, and so tell your children; and so farewell.”

Laura Prichard teaches music/dance/art throughout the Boston space and at the university degree (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003, underneath Vance George.
Husband Michael Prichard, a baritone, is founding member of the MIT Chamber Chorus and a veteran of the Tanglewood Pageant and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. By day he works as a mechanical engineer.