MUSIC REVIEW: At Tanglewood, a weekend filled with tributes to Beethoven, John Williams | Berkshire landscapes


LENOX — Tribute, reference, quotation, imitation, influence, borrowing, debt, plagiarism. All of this is within a range of possibilities in which one composer refers to the music of another. The Saturday and Sunday concerts at Tanglewood gave us a fascinating opportunity to consider this spectrum.

Creative artists are naturally aware of the accomplishments of those who came before them. Young, they fall in love with the work of their predecessors and imitate it closely. Later, they deliberately shun these influences; while finally, as mature artists, they are able to assimilate what they have learned without fear of servile imitation. These stages of artistic maturity were expounded by literary critic Harold Bloom.

Bloom was talking about English poetry, but the concept can be applied to any artistic field and can be clearly seen in the history of Western music. Bach leaned on Vivaldi, Beethoven idolized Mozart, Stravinsky assimilated Rimsky-Korsakov and Bernstein absorbed the rhythms and harmonies of jazz.

On Sunday afternoon, we heard “subito, con forza”, a piece composed for Beethoven’s birthday in 2020 by Unsuk Chin. She is admired in Europe for her craftsmanship and innovative orchestral color. This concise work is filled with sly and revealing references to the music of Beethoven. From the Coriolan Overture to the Ninth Symphony, tiny snippets of Beethoven’s works are embedded in a shimmering score, like jewels woven into fabric. It’s a tribute quote. Jewelry is made to be recognized.

Then on the program, the captivating Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor by Max Bruch, played by the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. Now nearly 77 years old, his tone isn’t as robust as it once was, and something about his playing betrayed weariness, particularly the tendency to slip between notes rather than fingering properly. But the public offered their respect for a lifetime of achievement.

WATCH: The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs

Bruch’s violin concerto owes a debt to Mendelssohn’s, but the debt is purely structural. From Mendelssohn, Bruch learned to color his first movement with the minor key, to bring in the soloist in the first bars of the piece and to link the three movements.

The shadow cast by Beethoven almost overwhelmed Johannes Brahms. He even had difficulty putting pen to paper, hearing “the step of this giant over my shoulder”. It took him 20 years to finally complete his First Symphony. By this time, he had learned to overcome his addiction, find his own way, and even assimilate the lessons of his great forefather into his own work. Brahms’ First Symphony is in Beethoven’s favorite key (C minor) and overtly references the “Ode to Joy” in its last movement. No Beethoven melody is used; a completely original melody is created. And yet the placement, simplicity, rhythm and form of the melody are inevitably reminiscent of those of Beethoven. The reference is deliberate. “Anyone can see that,” Brahms shot back at an arrogant critic.

Russian-born guest conductor Dima Slobodenyuk made a career in Finland, and he elicited a fine performance from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The principal wind players and solo violin shone in their solo tours, and the contrabassoonist, who I imagine is not often the subject of praise, deserves credit for his remarkable contribution.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review the specter of composers’ dependence on their ancestors. John Williams’ concert on Friday night gave us a glimpse of one end of this spectrum. The overt copying, sometimes even note for note, of the music of other composers (such as Stravinsky, Gustav Holst and Hollywood composer Erich Korngold) in some of his most famous scores became a scandal. Passing off the work of others as your own is not a tasty occupation.

In most areas (scientific discovery or creative writing, for example), this would lead to censure and condemnation. With Williams, she went unnoticed or glossed over in polite circles. Williams is not the only composer to have relied heavily on the music of others, and only a small part of his work is so overtly and completely borrowed from others, but his unattributed “borrowings” are some of his most more famous and made him both extremely popular and very wealthy.

Saturday’s tribute to Williams on his 90th birthday sold out at Tanglewood. I doubt, however, that most of the 18,000 people who came were there for Williams’ classical scores, which formed the bulk of the program and represented his still unrealized ambition to be seen as a serious and compelling composer. They came to hear the “Star Wars” theme, which is based, say, “very closely” on the original music by Erich Korngold and performed as an encore.


What: John Williams – The Tanglewood 90th Anniversary Celebration

Who: Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ken-David Masur, conductor with special guests: J. William Hudgins, vibraphone; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Branford Marsalis, saxophone; Eric Revis, bass; James Taylor, singer; Jessica Zhou, harp.

When: 8 p.m., Saturday, August 20

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

What: Dima Slobodeniouk conducts Unsuk Chin, Bruch and Brahms with Itzhak Perlman, violin

Who: Dima Slobodeniouk, conductor; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Boston Symphony Orchestra.

When: 2:30 p.m., Sunday, August 21

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

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