in: News & Features

July 26, 2013

Looking back at the Tanglewood Legacy

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For anyone who missed Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary concert a year ago or wants to recall its celebratory ambience, an impressive DVD version of the event has just been released by the C Major label, distributed by Naxos in North America. Brief interviews with a few principals provide the gloss for an institution so established and so popular that it doesn’t really need boosting.

The DVD replays the entire concert, the program of which was intended to highlight the various ensembles that populate Tanglewood during its summerlong season: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, and Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Apart from the superb performances, the most curious element of the DVD is the selection of on-camera chats with artist-in-residence John Williams, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and a few others. Only Williams seemed to have anything beyond the predictable to say. Tanglewood is still his focus at age 81. “There’s nothing like it in North America, possibly not in the world,” he said. Students at the Center “come here to think about music, hear it and connect it with nature.” Williams goes out of his way to praise Leonard Bernstein, a Center alumnus, whose “vitality nourished the place for so long.” And he rightly considers the spirit of Tanglewood to be intimately tied to the contributions of founder Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland and Bernstein.

Yo-Yo Ma said he has been attending and participating for 29 years, and from the beginning found Tanglewood “a mind-blowing experience”.

An anonymous monologue tracing the history of Tanglewood (named for the Nathaniel Hawthorne children’s book Tanglewood Tales) praised its devotion to new music. During Erich Leinsdorf’s tenure, it became a “mecca for the world’s living composers,” the voice said. Both Copland and Paul Hindemith taught there and conducted their own compositions. Bernstein’s landmark performance was the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

And Koussevitzky was perhaps best-known for his commitment to living composers and their “new music”, having commissioned works from Serge Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Hindemith and others. Indeed it was this symbiosis with living composers that seemed to be missing from the gala anniversary concert. The program was cautious, light and middlebrow. The de rigueur Copland Fanfare for the Common Man was the opener, and from there came Bernstein Broadway compositions, too much Rodgers and Hammerstein, lightweight Haydn and Tchaikovsky, Ravel’s La Valse and even a look at Carmen from Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy. Beethoven’s crowd-pleaser Choral Fantasy climaxed the evening and the DVD.

Living composers must have been yearning for a return engagement by Leinsdorf and Koussevitzky.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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