As Tanglewood Opens, Boston Symphony Casts A Spotlight On Diversity

Soprano Julia Bullock was soloist in Jessie Montgomery’s ‘Five Freedom Songs’ at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony under music director Andris Nelsons. (Photos by Hilary Scott)

LENOX, Mass. — In its opening Tanglewood concerts of the 2023 season July 7-9, the Boston Symphony Orchestra signaled its part in today’s explosive attention to diversity in the American experience. Friday’s and Sunday’s programs, before heading for the heart of the literature, began with short works by Iranian Canadian and African American composers.

Friday’s concert was led by the orchestra’s Latvian music director, Andris Nelsons, in his 10th season. His growing strength, crispness, and confidence ushered the tone through the humid air, adding to the audience’s pleasure at being back in the Berkshires summer retreat.

Nelsons is a trumpet player, well liked by brass sections. Emblematic of the season’s programming, this first concert began with Herald, Holler, and Hallelujah, a brass-and-percussion fanfare by one-time Tanglewood student Wynton Marsalis. Co-commissioned by several orchestras, it had its premiere last year by the New Jersey Symphony, and this was its BSO premiere. Loud and cheerful, and moving into swing, it’s a Fanfare for the Common Man wannabe and could, with similar instrumentation, fill many a program’s opening slot. 

Keith Lockhardt led the Boston Pops and a cast of Broadway luminaries in ‘Ragtime: the Symphonic Concert.”

Daniil Trifonov was in top form for Prokofiev’s delicious Piano Concerto No. 3. There were small orchestral bobbles, but the big piece had zip and verve. Trifonov played a perfect little encore: a solo version of a dance from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella. (You could just see the small pointe shoe.) It was followed by a highly etched and acceptable Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. This concert will be screened in Pittsfield Common July 29 as part of an outreach program, Tanglewood in the City.   

Saturday, hardly a Pops concert as named, was an ambitious project called “Ragtime: the Symphonic Concert.” Devised by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty, the creators of the Broadway musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s book Ragtime, it melds themes — riches, poverty, prejudice, violence, immigration, racial issues — with period names: JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Robert Peary, Evelyn Nesbit.  

Singing-dancing actors and a couple of poised children were arrayed across the front of the stage, with the Boston Pops performing under conductor Keith Lockhart. Slides of railroads, houses, and cars serving as scenery were projected at the rear.

Elizabeth Stanley, as Mother in ‘Ragtime: a Symphonic Concert,’ almost stopped the show with her fiery ‘Back to Before.’

The abandoned baby of Sarah (Nikki Renée Daniels, a Schuyler sister in the Chicago company of Hamilton) and Coalhouse Walker (Alton Fitzgerald White, slow start, then better and better) is found and raised by the family of Mother, a wealthy suburban woman (Elizabeth Stanley, Grammy Awards, Sondheim veteran), whose husband, returning from a year away on Peary’s expedition to the North Pole, is shocked. Flaherty’s sweet, sinuous ragtime score is in a familiar idiom, though the tunes were newly written for the score.

In the end, all the groups (white, Black, immigrant) across the stage want to be friends: the ecstatic American dream. Stanley almost stopped the show with her fiery “Back to Before.” Good for Lockhart to undertake this production: It represents a new direction for the Pops and will be high in his resume.

Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist Iman Habibi, shown with Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, had two works performed at Tanglewood during its opening weekend.

The weekend was in a sense book-ended by short, new issue-oriented works of the Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist Iman Habibi, who holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Friday’s chamber-music prelude concert introduced Offering of Water, performed by BSO violinist Lucia Lin, who commissioned it, and Habibi. It’s about gratitude for water and ancient cultures’ sacred relationship with nature. Tonally hummable and wistful, it has a plangent violin line and bubbling piano. Its aim is to atone for human pollution, with motoric sounds of hope for the future. A lot for 11 minutes.

Habibi’s 13-minute BSO commission, Zhian (meaning “life” in Kurdish and “formidable” in Persian), had its premiere Sunday under Nelsons. It celebrates Mahsa Amini, the young Iranian woman slaughtered for not wearing a head covering. In clean, early-Stravinsky style, it has the harmless, accessible feel of a documentary score — maybe not what the composer intended. Habibi introduced both of his works with passionate intensity, which maybe his next music will mirror.   

The featured premiere, also commissioned by the BSO, was Five Freedom Songs, traditional Black spirituals for voice, percussion, and string orchestra, by Jessie Montgomery, whose Starburst was heard here in 2021. Several orchestras co-commissioned the songs, which were sung here by soprano Julia Bullock.

Hilary Hahn was soloist in Brahms’ Violin Concerto under Nelsons.

Montgomery is a New Yorker associated with the Sphinx Organization and is in her second season as resident composer of the Chicago Symphony. She has a classical grounding, but anyone expecting to bounce and moan along with familiar spiritual tunes would have been surprised. Phrases and strains were heard, but the style was mostly Montgomery’s personal, dissonant takes and rhythms, eloquently articulated by Bullock, who is to give a recital of classical repertoire here on July 13.

Finally for the BSO on this Sunday (there were small concerts late into the evening), the experienced, talented Hilary Hahn played Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Though the piece has always had its detractors, it retains a firm hold in the repertoire. Hahn’s performance reflected her intelligent listening. At the end, there was appreciative applause — for her playing, her vibrant collaboration with Nelsons, and for being back at Tanglewood.