The weather held up yesterday, and the picnickers were out in force at Tanglewood, the storied summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and home of the Tanglewood Music Center, one of the world's leading centers for musical study. I've been coming up here pretty much every summer for the past 15 years, starting the season after Leonard Bernstein gave his memorable final concert here in 1990.
The legends of Tanglewood are legion: this was where Bernstein learned to conduct, where Copland learned to compose, where countless others have come to learn and/or teach. Bernstein used to say there is a magical quality to the place - something about the way the mountain air blows across the perfectly-manicured lawn, or the spectacular vistas of the rolling Berkshires - that makes everything sound better.
Tanglewood is also famous for it's serious and weighty programming: in past seasons, I've heard everything from the Brahms German Requiem (with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), to Britten's War Requiem, to a concert combining Act I of Die Walkure with Act III of Gotterdammerung. (Tanglewood also has a strong commitment to contemporary music: last summer, I attended here the first staged U.S. performance of Elliott Carter's one-act opera What Next? conducted by BSO and Met Opera music director James Levine.)
Someone apparently forgot to tell that to Kurt Masur, who last night conducted Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony and Beethoven's classical-sounding 1st Symphony. Masur, currently the music director of the Orchestre National de France, turned 80 last week, but still had the same passion and energy as when I used to attend his concerts at Avery Fisher, where he was the music director of the Philharmonic from 1991-2002. The BSO sounded like a well-oiled machine in both: I haven't encountered playing that precise and powerful since I heard the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Carnegie Hall last season (an orchestra which Masur conducted for over 25 years.)
In between, the BSO was joined by superstar violinist Joshua Bell, who, at least on this night, lived up to his outsized reputation in Prokofiev's 1st Violin Concerto. Bell attacked the piece, showing expressiveness in the Andantino's lattice-like cadenza, and fury in the tricky Scherzo, which he made look completely effortless. Surprisingly, there was only a mild ovation afterward: the few times I've seen Bell, the crowd typically goes wild afterward, demanding at least one encore. Tough crowd up here in Lenox.
During the intermission, I got to speak for a bit to one of the TMC Orchestra students about tonight's all-star performance of Verdi's Don Carlo, with Levine conducting. (He also conducted the opera last season at the Met.) She told me that they've been in rehearsal every day since Tuesday for six hours, and also had two sessions with Levine last week. Don Carlo is probably Verdi's most challenging opera, clocking in at nearly four hours and with powerhouse roles for six different singers. Still, she didn't seem concerned.
"We're ready," she said confidently. "I mean, these are great singers."
Not to mention a great - and generous - conductor.