This article begins the second series of dispatches from an estimable sibling e-journal, The Berkshire Review. From time to time this summer, their writers will be covering events in the western parts of Massachusetts and nearby New York for BMInt. In the regular concert season, Berkshire Review will selectively reprint some posts from our journal. This is a fruitful collaboration for enjoyment of our readers.
My preview of this year’s Tanglewood season has been revised twice, due to James Levine’s cancellations of all his engagements. So there is a modicum of grumbling in this preview, which doesn’t mean that Tanglewood no longer offers a variety of superb music-making that will appeal to music-lovers of many different tastes. While the situation as it stands is not good, one can only express one’s sympathy and admiration for the administrators who have attempted to keep most of the offerings Tanglewood that have made this music festival popular with a broad audience and have sought to avoid a disaster at the box office.
However, with this season, it is beginning to be apparent that the change of scheduling — more importantly the shape of the season — at Tanglewood is intended to permanent. In the past, the Music Director and the BSO got the Festival off to a rousing start on the Fourth of July weekend with a Tchaikovsky symphony or some other grandiose work of popular appeal. (I don’t know how long the actual Fourth of July program has been a pop concert.) Beginning in 2008, that holiday weekend has been the property of James Taylor, the ever-popular singer, guitarist, and local resident. In fact the entire first week of the season will be a James Taylor festival, with performances in Ozawa Hall on June 28, 29, and 30, and in the Music Shed with the Boston Pops on July 1, followed by A Prairie Home Companion on July 2, culminating in two performances of The Essential James Taylor on July 3 and 4. In other words, the BSO concerts now begin and end a week later than in the past.
The Pelléas et Mélisande now is no longer; it will be replaced by a TMC Orchestra concert, the program of which is still unannounced as of today, May 26. The other programs will proceed as scheduled, with these just-announced replacements that have conducted the BSO several times, at least. : Charles Dutoit conducting the Italian opera potpourri and the Berlioz Requiem on July 8 and 9; Emmanuel Krivine, the all-Ravel program on July 24; Hans Graf, the Mahler Symphony No. 5 and Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414, on July 29; and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Stefan Asbury, who will take over Levine’s bits in “Tanglewood on Parade” on August 2. A newcomer, the distinguished Finnish conductor, John Storgårds, will take over the all-Sibelius program on July 16. Storgårds, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, artistic director of the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland, and principal guest conductor of BBC Philharmonic, is known for rooting out little-known symphonic treasures of the twentieth century. Unfortunately we won’t benefit from that aspect of his talents, but the Sibelius Violin Concerto (with Nikolaj Znaider) and Fifth Symphony should give him plenty of substance to work with.
Each week gives us a taste of the various endeavors we know and treasure at Tanglewood, from Rachmaninoff to Wuorinen. Since the economic troubles of 2008 and James Levine’s health problems, which began before that, Tanglewood programming has become increasingly conservative and crowd-pleasing, and the pop stars, especially last season, have been creeping in. The sempiternal Beethoven’s Ninth is being jostled a bit by jazz and pop at the end. Is the management preparing us for a fusion Tanglewood? My knowledge of pop culture is sadly insufficient to describe the sort of middle-brow Middle Earth that is encompassed by James Taylor, Garrison Keillor, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Steely Dan, and Radio Deluxe, but I know that Lenny (Leonard Bernstein), one of the more august tutelary spirits of Tanglewood, would not have approved of easy listening for baby boomers. His vision of “pop” and “classical” was a lot more sophisticated and challenging. Then of course there was the idealistic vision of Serge Koussevitzky. It would be a crime to compromise that for the turnstile and the cash register.
While, I believe, the Tanglewood management deserves a sound rap of the knuckles for caving in to commercialism and compromising the uniqueness of Tanglewood, so that the season is dangerously similar to SPAC’s, there will be much to enjoy there this summer, and as I wrote this, I found myself looking forward more and more warmly to the Tanglewood summer. The problem is not only in the compromise of Koussevitzkian ideals, and the fact that the pop concerts cut into the time available for the TMC Orchestra and Opera. In providing these blue-chip pop performers the baby-boomers who supposedly flock to the Berkshires feel comfortable with, Tanglewood is fragmenting its audience, and this has been going on for some time. While a person who has come for the Festival of Contemporary Music may well attend a BSO concert in the Shed, just to hear the magnificent orchestra, it is a rare occurrence that a frequenter of the Shed will venture over to the CMF. Similarly, the pop concerts and the Jazz Festival have their own audience, and if a few of them happen to hear a Brahms or a Russian program, it is not enough to bring the audiences together. And I’m not saying this out of snobbishness, either. I’m very much looking forward to hearing Tyondai Braxton at the Tully Scope Festival next month, because his music belongs here and now, and it is entirely relevant to the planning of the festival, for which there is a unified audience. Attendance and money don’t solve the problem for the future.
Perspective on The Programs
The pre-season performances, previously given by distinguished soloists and chamber groups, usually a string quartet, will be replaced, like last year, by a two-day string quartet marathon in the Theatre. As usual the Mark Morris Dance Group will perform two evenings in Ozawa Hall, June 28 and 29 (with Yo-Yo Ma, no less!), but the first sign of life at Tanglewood will be a performance by the eclectic rock group, Earth, Wind, and Fire, announced several weeks after the original season schedule. Like all of Tanglewood’s ever-increasing pop offerings, this group has stood the test of time and has developed a broad appeal. As the release says, “Formed in 1969 in Chicago, Illinois, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Earth, Wind, & Fire created a new brand of pop music — one steeped in African and African-American styles including jazz and R&B but appealing to a broader cross-section of the listening public. Earth, Wind, & Fire combined high-caliber musicianship, wide-ranging musical genre eclecticism, and ’70s multicultural spiritualism.”
The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, composed of the elite Fellows who flock to Lenox each summer to perfect their already impressive musicianship, will play its first concert on Tuesday, July 5, an as yet unannounced program under the Peruvian conductor, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Music Director of the Fort Worth Symphony. Eclectic crossover classical-pop will then return on Thursday, July 7, when the Mark O’Connor String Quartet will play a program of their favorites.
So Friday, July 8 will then be the official “Opening Night at Tanglewood.” Charles Dutoit will conduct a program of Italian snippets, overtures by Rossini and Verdi, a few Gabrieli canzoni, excerpts from Bellini’s Norma and Verdi’s I Lombardi, all concluding with Respighi’s Pines of Rome. This would seem pretty much a mindless throw-away program, if it were not an opportunity for a wider group to hear Angela Meade sing bits from Norma, in which she performed so thrillingly last summer at Caramoor, in an impeccably prepared and brilliantly executed performance under Will Crutchfield. If nothing else, it will give her and James Levine a chance to get better acquainted, as her Met career begins to advance, as it possibly may. That alone should be very much worthwhile, but if anyone thinks that any James Taylor fan who was still recovering from the previous weekend and happened to drop in might pick up a passion for Italian opera from this program, they are sadly mistaken. The program at least has the merit of conserving rehearsal time and energy for the important and challenging work scheduled for the following evening.
During his tenure at the BSO, Maestro Levine has shown a predilection for starting Tanglewood off with something serious, as well as the traditional opening night fare. This year, he will continue his commendable Berlioz initiative with the Requiem. This has been a great warhorse for Levine’s predecessors at the BSO. Charles Munch’s recording remains a classic. Levine’s sincere enthusiasm for Berlioz, the BSO’s traditional grounding in the music, and the matchless singing of John Oliver’s chorus — not to mention the vast space of the Music Shed, as a fitting transatlantic stand-in for Les Invalides — should make this one of the absolute musts of the Tanglewood season. If you stay over for the Sunday afternoon concert, you can recover on familiar Tanglewood fare, like the Bruch Scottish Fantasy with Joshua Bell and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique under the direction of Harth-Bedoya. But why not stick around for Monday night as well, when the TMC Orchestra will play an as yet unannounced program under Stefan Asbury, unfortunately the only appearance of this energetic advocate for modern and new music, unless he will be a part of the Contemporary Music Festival, which has not yet been announced in detail. He is a splendid conductor in any repertoire.
Chamber music will begin in earnest during the week with the great Emerson String Quartet playing a satisfying program of Haydn, Bartók’s Sixth, and Schubert No. 15 in G in Tuesday July 12. On Thursday July 14 Nikolaj Znaider and pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar will play violin sonatas by Beethoven, Schumann, and Franck.
The BSO concerts the following weekend will include, on Friday, July 16, Lynn Harrell playing the Dvorák Cello Concerto with Kurt Masur, who will also conduct Schumann’s First Symphony, Spring. Schumann has been a speciality of Masur’s throughout his career (and you can read BMInt’s review from last fall here). On Saturday, the all-Sibelius program under John Storgårds, with the Fifth Symphony and Nikolai Znaider playing the Violin Concerto, should provide an appropriate warm-up for the Bard Festival coming up in August, which will be devoted to the controversial Finnish master. On Sunday, Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops will take over for a program of orchestral favorites and Cole Porter show tunes.
The following week will bring the major solo event of the season. Jean-Yves Thibaudet will play Ravel’s complete works for piano on Wednesday and Thursday, July 20 and 21. On Sunday, July 24, Thibaudet will play both of Ravel’s piano concerti along with the orchestral version of Valses nobles et sentimentales. Emanuel Krivine will conduct. This Ravel mini-festival should also prove one of the highlights of the summer.
A TMC Orchestra concert will replace the previously scheduled Pelléas et Mélisande. The only other concert that week will be the rock group Steely Dan the evening after. So that will be a quiet week at Tanglewood.
Friday July 29, Hans Graf will conduct the Mahler Fifth, which Levine conducted so sensitively early last fall. This was one of Levine’s very greatest Mahler performances, broad, analytical, and extremely detailed, with a deeply moving slow movement. Leon Fleisher will begin the program with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K. 414. On Saturday Christoph Eschenbach will accompany Peter Serkin in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, followed by his Fourth Symphony, and on Sunday Eschenbach will accompany Alisa Weilerstein in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, before he leads the BSO in Mahler’s First Symphony.
The traditional “Tanglewood on Parade” concert will occur on July 31, complete with fireworks, to be followed by something completely different, the four-day Festival of Contemporary Music, this year devoted to the wonderful Charles Wuorinen, who will direct it. The six-program festival will feature two world premiere performances including Mr. Wuorinen’s It Happens Like This, a dramatic, semi-staged 35-minute cantata for four singers and 12 instrumentalists set to six selections from James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys (2004), which will open the festival on August 3, and will be conducted by James Levine. More details later, as they are announced.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a very welcome staple at Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall, will turn up on Friday, August 5, to a program of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody with Yuja Wang, and Richard Strauss. Saturday, another Tanglewood staple, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, will make its appearance under Assistant Conductor Sean Newhouse, along with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang. On Sunday Lionel Bringuier, music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León in Valladolid and associate conductor of the LA Philharmonic, will conduct a program that will include Smetana’s Die Moldau, Emanuel Ax playing Mozart’s K. 482 (one of his greatest, in my opinion), and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. As pained as those Russian gentlemen were in life, one might well call that the Painless Weekend at Tanglewood.
The following week, on Tuesday, August 9, following a concert by the rock band Train on Monday August 8, André Previn will play an intriguing program with the BSO Chamber Players: Mozart, Milhaud, Martin?, and his own work for winds, brass, and strings. The mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe will perform a popular American program on Wednesday, August 10.
On Friday, August 12, Frühbeck de Burgos will conduct an accessible Spanish program with Pepe Romero. On Sunday he will conduct the summer’s second all-Brahms program, the Nänie, the Schicksalslied, and the Alto Rhapsody, followed by the Second Symphony. Stephanie Blythe will sing. Given Frühbeck’s outstanding abilities as a choral conductor, this should be very much worthwhile. On the intervening Saturday, Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct the Brahms First Symphony and Schumann’s Cello Concerto, with Yo-Yo Ma, soloist. On Sunday evening, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax will Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Op. 69 and Brahms’s Clarinet Trio with Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, among other things. As usual, Brahms will be very well served at Tanglewood. (And I haven’t mentioned everything!)
After an exciting outburst of performances by period instrument groups in 2007, mostly the doing of NL: A Season of Dutch Arts in the Berkshires, Tanglewood has settled down into a routine of a single guest group each season. This is too bad, I think, not only because historically-informed performance is one of the most important, characteristic, and stimulating aspects our musical life today, but because all of these concerts are very well attended, coming close to filling up Ozawa Hall for every concert. It is clear that there is an audience for this kind of performance here in the Berkshires, beyond what our own very distinguished early and baroque music festival, Aston Magna, can provide. However, one can’t complain about this year’s single offering, a complete opera by Handel, Orlando, with an American group, one of the most distinguished, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of San Francisco. Founded in 1981, and conducted by Nicholas McGegan, who has been their music director since 1986, it is otherwise one of most energetic, engaging, and ubiquitous champions of historical performance in America — easily a match for James Taylor in his realm. It should be enlightening for local audiences to hear what a West Coast group can do. Besides this, it will be joined by the great Dominique Labelle, a fixture in both Boston and in the Berkshires, who is one of the most intelligent and vocally felicitous singers of both baroque and contemporary music anywhere.
This might be a fine culmination to the season, but there is more. Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct a well-balanced program with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 1, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, played by Martin Helmchen, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on Friday August 19. Saturday will be Film Night with the Boston Pops. The Sunday concert will be all-Mozart with Bernard Labadie, including the magnificent Chaconne from Idomeneo, the Piano Concerto K. 456 with Benedetto Lupo, and the Jupiter Symphony. Labadie is not one of my favorite Mozartians — too tight and rococo for my taste — and he’d better do all the repeats in the Jupiter to fill up his time. In the evening there will be Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. I could go for that.
On Thursday, August 25, Brad Mehldau will play jazz, and from here on Tanglewood will be fusion right up ‘til the classics run out of breath with the usual Beethoven’s Ninth on Sunday, August 28, when Loren Maazel will preside. Before the classical curtain falls, however, there will be a concert performance of the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with the BSO under Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony, on Friday August 26. An all-Beethoven program will follow on Saturday evening, with the First and Fifth Symphonies, led by Itzhak Perlman, who will play the two Romances for Violin and Orchestra. Then comes the Ninth and then the Labor Day Jazz Weekend.
I’ve always thought that a yearly ritual of the Ninth is a mistake. A performance of the Ninth should be special. I’ve heard some very good Ninths at Tanglewood, but never a truly great one. Perhaps every three years would be better. I was wondering what had become of the ever-popular staged opera in the Theatre. Finally I found it. It seems the several performances, which nearly always sell out, have been reduced to a single evening of short operas and art song by Darius Milhaud. So the TMC Vocal Fellows will get some stage experience, but nothing like the usual performances. Both the Fellows and the audience will be deeply disappointed by this. It also would have been good to carry over some of the important Harbison symphony performances from the Symphony Hall season. Chamber music seems on the wane, just as pop music is growing. Even the “classical” programming, with concerts like Stephanie Blythe and Friends, is becoming more pop-ified than in the past.
Apart from this, 2011’s program is a bit disappointing. It is the most cautious I can remember, but a roster of some of the finest conductors working in the United States leading one of the great orchestras in a solid repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler is not a bad thing at all, although I believe quite strongly that this kind of conservatism sends the wrong message about classical music. Still, if you have just discovered classical music and are swimming through the basic repertoire, or if you have been inspired by the vacuous series in the New York Times on the “ten top composers,” (which also sends the wrong message about classical music) what better thing could you do than to take July and August off and settle in the Berkshires to take a good bit of it in? Classical radio used to do some of this job, but it is rapidly disappearing. (Note what has happened at WGBH, WNYC, and KDFC. There are twelve articles on the subject in BMInt. Click here for a list of links.) Recordings of any kind, even the best technically or the most musically inspired are no match for live music. The Ozawa Hall and the Music Shed have really fine acoustics — but be sure to get the best seats you can afford in the Shed. And if you know your way around all the basic repertoire, you know you can stand to hear it again. That makes a classic. And for that matter, I’m looking forward to hearing many of the old war horses myself.
All of the classical concerts are listed in the BMInt “Upcoming Events.” You may also click here for a convenient complete list of all Tanglewood presentations.
Michael Miller, a writer and photographer based in Williamstown, MA, is editor and publisher of the Berkshire Review for the Arts, an online magazine which covers classical music, opera, theater, cinema, art, photography, architecture, travel, and food and drink, wherever they may be found.