My husband and I arrived in the Berkshires a few Sunday afternoons ago, too late to hear the Boston Symphony with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, which attracted many thousands of music-lovers to Tanglewood Music Festival. No matter, that same evening the young bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding was scheduled to perform.
By the time we entered the festival gates around 6 p.m., with our picnic basket, stadium chairs,and blanket in hand, the lush green grounds had been swept clean of any possible debris and looked as pristine as they must have on opening day. At Tanglewood, there are no gauche waste receptacles for soiled napkins or paper plates — instead, a tidy concertgoer will find gigantic wood handcarts, painted black, which seem to function as much as sculpture (Hommage a Shakers) as trash bins. The pin oaks and pines are shapely and perfectly pruned. The sun sets in spectacular orange behind the Berkshire Hills. Nature seems in perfect harmony.
Seiji Ozawa Hall, the smaller and and newer of the large concert venues at Tanglewood, resembles the interior of a somewhat severe Congregational Church. By all reports, the acoustics inside this structure are marvelous, but the sound was quite fine out on the lawn, where concertgoers happily nibbled on their baguette and cheese and sipped wine. It hardly matters in a way what is going on onstage, because sitting under the stars and hearing live music is such an acute pleasure.
But it’s even better when the artist is one of such outsize talent and charm as Esperanza Spalding. This slender young woman in the tangerine-colored silk gown and signature buoyant Afro did all this:
1. Sang like an
2. Playing complex original jazz lines on her
3. Leading her nine-piece big band (her Radio Music Society) comprised of talented jazz musicians, many of whom did double-duty as back-up vocalists and instrumentalists, and whose horn section blended in symphonic, velvet sound
4. Chatting with the audience, with the ease of a talk-show hostess
One would be tempted to be envious of such talent, but there is a term that banishes such thoughts: “no competition.”
Ms. Spalding’s topics ranged from:
-romance; “I spent all this time looking for a prince, until the day I decided what I wanted was a king. A king is someone who, when you realize you won’t be able to get out of work until late, will drop everything and go pick up the kids at 3:10 p.m. That’s a king.”
-the extinction of species
-the beauties of friendship.
And she did it all with disarming openness and incredible energy, for nearly two non-stop hours.
The audience insisted on an encore, which she finally gave, along with pianist Leo Genovese. In an unembarrassed way she related this story:
“Last night we were at Newport”…. the audience whooped and cheered….” and afterward there was this gala, and Herbie (Hancock) was there and Wayne (Shorter) was there, and everyone wanted Leo and me to do something, so we did this piece of Leo’s. And we were so nervous we kept messing up. It was horrible. So tonight we’re going to make up for yesterday and do it right.”
What followed was a propulsive, Latin-driven piano line with Spalding’s voice sweeping over top in operatic style and astonishing range.
And with that, the final song of the final live show of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society came to an end. I’m sure it’s just the beginning of something even more fantastic.
For videos of Radio Music Society, see: