Back to the Berkshires: the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood

by Pete Matthews Empire Strikes Back, Tanglewood 2022

"Music is one of the most important gifts we've been given from nature. It's all out there: all we need to do is organize the sound sources, and that search is the greatest fun. It's a search for something magical." - John Williams

There is no place in the world more meaningful to me - musically or otherwise - than Tanglewood: the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937. Nestled in the bucolic Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts, it offers a uniquely intoxicating mix of art and nature, of high-level musicianship and youthful energy (courtesy of the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center).

After no performances in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a pared-back schedule of limited capacity performances last summer, Tanglewood is happily back in full swing this year with a packed slate of concerts including opera, choral works, and new music. (The Festival of Contemporary Music is back this year for the first time since 2019.) From what I could tell during my visit to Lenox two weekends ago, everything felt more-or-less back to normal. 

On Friday night (July 15), the Boston Pops performed live alongside The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the second (or, officially, fifth) film in the Star Wars saga. As most fans know, the music for all nine Star Wars films was composed by John Williams: a living legend who has written more than 100 film scores, 52 of them nominated for Oscars, winning 5. It is hard to overstate the impact Williams has had not only on film, but on music at large over the past 60 years. His music - largely Romantic and tonal, with triumphant fanfares and bracing flashes of dissonance - is immediately recognizable, its emotional impact unmistakable. There are any number of reasons for this, most of which can be chalked up to his insistence on writing music the old fashioned way. 

"I still use a pencil and paper, the same way that I’ve always done," Williams told Berkshire Magazine earlier this summer. "I have to write every note out and every duplication of a different key. My younger colleagues all work with synthesizers and add track upon track on the recording processes, something they call “striping." In my case, I write the music and we assemble an orchestra and play it just as one might have done in 1850 instead of 1950."

Indeed, for Williams, the only difference between Hollywood and the concert hall is scale. "I am enormously grateful," he says, "as all composers are, to film for giving us the broadest possible audience worldwide that any composer has ever enjoyed. I'm certain that Beethoven would have shunned it, but Wagner would have had his own studio, with a water tower with a big "W" on it."

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Summer 2022 Live Music Preview: Out of Town

Tanglewood Shed(all photos by Pete Matthews)
In addition to all of the summer music happenings in NYC, things are finally getting back to normal at the festivals and amphitheaters out of town, many of which have been dormant - or half-baked - for the past two years. Here are some of the things worth a trip:

Tanglewood (July 1-Aug. 28) Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons spends four full weeks in the Berkshires this summer, performing everything from Brahms' German Requiem to a concert performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Other highlights include Garrick Ohlsson performing Brahms' complete piano music (Aug. 16-25), a John Williams 90th birthday celebration (Aug. 20), and a new opera by George Benjamin (Aug. 8) performed by the TMC fellows - who also gave the U.S. premiere of his Written on Skin in 2013.

Caramoor (June 30-Aug. 19) The elegant Westchester estate offers one of the most diverse festivals in the northeast - and only an hour's drive north of NYC. Spanning classical, jazz, opera, and new music, highlights include the world premiere of Michael Gordon's “Field of Vision” (July 24), a day-long jazz festival (July 30), Handel's rarely performed opera Theodora (July 31), and appearances by Brian Stokes Mitchell (July 9), Shemekia Copeland (July 29) and Angelique Kidjo (Aug 6).

Bard SummerScape (June 24-Aug. 14) Among this year's offerings at Bard's Fisher Center is Richard Strauss' rarely performed comic opera The Silent Woman (July 22-31) and the 32nd annual Bard Music Festival (Aug. 5-14), dedicated to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the Spiegeltent, which is back open for the first time since 2019, offerings include Nona Hendryx (July 1), the George Gee Swing Orchestra (July 10) and roots rocker Martha Redbone (July 30).

Glimmerglass Festival (July 8-Aug. 21) The northeast's leading summer opera festival presents both the tried and true (CarmenThe Sound of Music) and the new (The Jungle Book, Taking Up Serpents/Holy GroundThe Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson) on the shores of Lake Otsego, just down the road from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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The MET Orchestra Returns to Carnegie Hall

by Pete Matthews

MET Orchestra Carnegie Hall 6.15.22 DSC00713(All photos by Pete Matthews)

Life has never been easy being a member of the MET Orchestra, the concert stage orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. For 33 weeks a year, these 120 musicians - widely considered to be the finest opera orchestra in the world - toil anonymously in the opera pit, playing eight performances each week of everything from Donizetti to Brett Dean. But, much like the Vienna Philharmonic, which draws its members from the Vienna State Opera, the MET Orchestra emerges for a precious few evenings each season to appear onstage, demonstrating how their virtuosity extends to the symphonic repertoire. To my ears, they are hands down the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere (sorry, NY Phil.)

But, as difficult as life is normally in the MET Orchestra, things got a whole lot harder after COVID-19 shut down the opera house in March 2020. After cancelling the remainder of the season, and then the entire 2020-21 season, General Manager Peter Gelb essentially locked out the orchestra, refusing to pay them in a bitter dispute that lasted for more than a year. The musicians were left to fend for themselves, playing chamber concerts in parks and churches streamed on demand for a fee, and depending on donations and other contributions to keep them afloat.

Aside from a pair of benefit concerts in May 2021, when 50 orchestra musicians traveled to Texas to perform with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the full orchestra didn't play together as one until their triumphant performances of Mahler's 2nd "Resurrection" Symphony at Damrosch Park last September - a layoff of some 18 months. They followed that up the following week with a performance of Verdi's Requiem on the 20th anniversary of 9/11; the only other time the MET Orchestra would appear onstage this season was the special Benefit for Ukraine in March that included Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th.

Finally, after a very full season of some 22 operas at the Met, the MET Orchestra returned to the limelight of Carnegie Hall last night for the first time in three years. They were led by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who's been just about everywhere this season, including stints conducting the Vienna Phil and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on tour, not to mention his full time jobs at the Met and Philadelphia Orchestra. The crowd roared its appreciation when the orchestra rose at Yannick's request.

Richard Strauss' Don Juan was the ideal showcase for this remarkable orchestra. The strings were taut and crisp, the percussion explosive, the horns perfect. Clearly, this is an orchestra that can play anything - and play the shit out of it.

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