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A Berkshires Bounty: Opening Weekend at Tanglewood

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  3-33 PMLENOX, MA - I've been going to Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's longtime home in the Berkshires, almost every summer now for the past two-and-a-half decades. Those that have been to Tanglewood know that it is a special place, where the mix of manicured lawns, mountain vistas, and world class musicians make it one of the most satisfying places to experience music (not to mention some pretty elaborate picnics) in the world.

But, in all of those years, I've never made it up for the official opening weekend, which typically falls right after the 4th of July. Usually, these early concerts lean towards the pedestrian, featuring a flashy soloist performing under some second-tier conductor. (Tanglewood has actually been open since mid-June, mostly with a mix of pop and jazz concerts for the baby boomer set, including an annual appearance by local resident James Taylor.) 

This year, however, I was enticed by the early arrival of BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, who has expanded his presence at Tanglewood this year to some 10 concerts over four weeks. (11, if you count his participation in the Boston Pops' annual John Williams Film Night on August 19.) A promising development, to be sure, but with Nelsons about to take on the additional role of Kapellmeister (music director) of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, it remains to be seen if the trend will continue beyond this summer. 

Regardless, Tanglewood has always been about more than whomever's on the podium any given night. In addition to some two dozen concerts by the BSO in the 5,100 seat Koussevitzky Music Shed, a parade of world class soloists and chamber ensembles can be heard in the more intimate Ozawa Hall on most evenings. Then, there's the Tanglewood Music Center - Tanglewood's real raison d'être - which provides advanced training and performance opportunities for some of the world's top young musicians. In past summers, I've seen the TMC fellows perform everything from Wagner and Mozart operas under James Levine, to the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin's Written on Skin, in addition to chamber music and orchestral concerts. No matter where you turn, there always seems to be some kind of music happening at Tanglewood.

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Fresh Squeezed Opera Presents "Scopes" and "Prix-Fixe"

by Steven Pisano

20170616-DSC00185(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

You have to admire the courage of a composer of one-act operas. They probably have a better chance of winning Powerball or pitching for the Yankees than they have of staging a commercial run. Thank goodness, then, for the many small opera companies that have stepped in to produce these small-sized works.

Fresh Squeezed Opera is a small, but ambitious Nyc-based company founded in 2013 by Jillian Flexner, Maggie Rascoe, and Lee Braun. This past week at the IATI Theater, they put on two one-acts: "Scopes" by Spencer Snyder and George Gaffney, and "Prix-Fixe" by Kevin Wilt and Caitlin Vincent.

"Scopes," directed by Victoria Benson and conducted by Dean Buck, is about the famous 1925 trial we all read about in history class, with criminal attorney Clarence Darrow (Sean Patrick Jernigan) facing down orator and politician William Jennings Bryan (Joshua Miller) about whether it was legal to teach children about evolution in a state where the Bible was presented as literal truth. The reporting on the trial by journalist H.L Mencken (Melanie Leinbach) was a national sensation. The whole spectacle had the sensationalistic flavor of tabloid TV, despite the fact that TV hadn't yet been invented.

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"Three Way," a Trio of One-Act Operas about Sex and Love, at BAM

by Steven Pisano

"Three Way" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

After an American premiere at Nashville Opera earlier this year, the provocative trio of one-act operas, Three Way, with music by Robert Paterson and libretto by David Cote, has come to the Fishman Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week, presented by American Opera Projects and featuring the American Modern Ensemble conducted by Dean Williamson.

In "The Companion," a single woman, Maya (Danielle Pastin), grows bored with her android companion, Joe (Samuel Levine), who she leases as her lover. Joe can make love all night and is ever so attentive to her every need, complimenting her, cooking her favorite food. What more could any woman want? Well, Maya wants love. But for that, Joe's software must be updated, so call in the tech guy (Wes Mason). The results turn out to be not exactly what Maya had in mind.

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U.S. Premiere of Philip Glass' "The Trial" at Opera Theatre St. Louis

TRIAL_0085aPhoto: Ken Howard

"This is a democracy! We are subject to the rule of law!" - The Trial

ST. LOUIS, MO - There's a shift happening in the way opera is presented in this country, where cities have begun to eschew the notion of a full fall-to-spring season in favor of a more compressed festival that lasts anywhere from two to eight weeks. What started out as a summer thing - Glimmerglass, Santa Fe - has now become the year-round standard everywhere from Philadelphia to Omaha. Which, contrary to what you might think, has encouraged bold programming and the commissioning of new works, alongside the usual dose of Puccini and Verdi.

Among this new breed of festivals, none has done more to promote more new - and particularly American opera - than the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Since its founding 41 years ago on a college campus ten miles southwest of the Gateway Arch, OTSL has presented 25 world premieres and 26 American premieres, including new works by Jack Perla, Terence Blanchard, and Ricky Ian Gordon, among others. Outside, it's a lovely, Glyndebourne-style setup (less the dinner jackets), with flower-filled gardens and wine and cheese served under candelabra-lit tents. Inside, there's an intimate, 900-seat theater with no less than the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in the pit. 

The standout offering of this summer's six week season is the U.S. premiere of Philip Glass' new opera The Trial, based on the Franz Kafka novel (with a libretto by Christopher Hampton.) I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon with Philip in New York a few months ago, where he spoke about why he chose The Trial for his 20th (!) opera, which premiered at Covent Garden in 2014. 

"It's about the corruption of democracy - need I say more? Aren't we living in the middle of that right now?" 

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