A Berkshires Marathon - Part I
Well, it wasn't quite the endurance test of June's Bang on a Can Marathon, but over the course of 29 hours this weekend, I managed to pack in five separate musical events. Here's the rundown:
Friday, August 10:
Tanglewood Prelude Concert, Seiji Ozawa Hall, 6pm
Friday night Prelude Concerts are a longstanding tradition at Tanglewood, where members of the Boston Symphony typically perform an hour or so of chamber music, prior to the evening's main concert with the full orchestra. Since 1994, these concerts have been held in Seiji Ozawa Hall, named for the BSO's longtime music director and just down a quick forest path from the Shed. The blond-wood hall - which resembles a Quaker meeting house - is ringed with windows, including five large vertical panels above the stage that fill the space with abundant light. Rolling green hills can be seen through the windows to the right.
The rain stopped by the time the concert started, but it was still way too cold to leave the back of the hall open, as they do most summer nights. As a result, the acoustics were even more resonant than usual: Ozawa Hall is arguably the finest chamber music hall in America, and it's dumbfounding they only use it two months out of the year.
The program consisted of Mozart and Dvorak string quintets (doubling viola), and featured Steve Ansell (BSO principal violist since 1996) and Jules Eskin (BSO principal cellist since 1964, having first appeared at Tanglewood as a TMC fellow in 1947), along with violinists Jason Horowitz and Julianne Lee, and violist Marvin Moon. They played with extreme reverence and precision, adding dramatic heft and complexity to the Mozart, an early work written when he was only 17. But the Dvorak quintet in E-flat - full of Bohemian rhythms and folksy melodies - came off sounding a bit stiff: a reminder that orchestral musicians aren't paid to jump around like members of the Emerson or Brentano Quartets. Still, the experience of listening to those quintets while the sun threw cubes of diffused white light above the stage was nothing short of transporting.
The George W. and Florence N. Adams Concert, Koussevitsky Music Shed, 830pm
If the 60 degree weather weren't enough of a deterrent for potential patrons (the Shed is open-air), how's this for a program: music by Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, and Bela Bartok? No doubt the program was hand-selected by the evening's conductor: BSO Music Director James Levine, who has attracted controversy in Boston for force- feeding the Brahmins a healthy dose of modernist fare, which they seem to tolerate in exchange for Levine's extraordinary conducting abilities. As a result, the Shed was less than two-thirds full, and I had no problem upgrading to a seat right in Section 1.
For a piece whose final section is called "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" (located about 10 minutes south of Lenox), I was shocked to read in the program notes that this was the premiere Tanglewood performance of Ives' Three Places in New England, a widely-regarded modern masterpiece. The first section, "The St. Gaudens in Boston Common" was yearning, like searching through a forest at night. The second, "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut," sounded like an F-d up marching band, with a totally ridiculous ending that made me chuckle out loud. And the Stockbridge section, supposedly depicting the location of Ives' honeymoon, was even darker and creepier than the first section. Afterwards, the applause was barely audible, save for a few enthusiastic shouts from way in the back (and from your's truly).
Elliott Carter was a protege of Ives, and was instrumental in promoting his mentor's music after it had fallen into obscurity in the 1940's. Since then, Carter has emerged as America's greatest living composer, and one of the leading contributors to 20th century modernism. Remarkably, he remains an active composer well into his 90's. In 2004, when Carter was 95, Levine commissioned him to compose a work for the 125th Anniversary of the BSO. The result was Three Illusions, an obvious homage to Ives' Three Places. (Levine continues to commission new works from Carter, and will premiere his new Horn Concerto with the BSO this season. In addition, he will lead the BSO in a concert at Carnegie Hall on Carter's 100th birthday, featuring yet another world premiere.)
Three Illusions, while challenging, is full of brilliant colors, more lush and ethereal than thorny. The music lasts less than 10 minutes in all, but traverses a universe of sound that makes it feel far longer. The polite applause at the end continued as Levine searched the audience, and rose to a standing ovation as a diminutive, white-haired man slowly made his way to the stage. It was the 98-year old Carter, wearing a blue windbreaker and walking slowly with a cane. When he reached the stage, he shook Levine's hand, turned and acknowledged the crowd with a brief wave before returning to his seat. A moment those of us present will not soon forget.
Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is best known for his mastery of modernist works by Messiaen and Ligeti, but he has also been a longtime advocate of his countryman Maurice Ravel, especially his masterful solo pieces. Ravel's Piano Concerto in G is somewhat lighter fare, full of jazzy rhythms and sounds, but Aimard performed it with total conviction, his face often contorted in concentration. The cold seemed to be getting to the musicians - I noticed several string players blowing into their hands between sections - but Aimard played flawlessly, dancing across the keys as if nothing was out of the ordinary. (At one point, I saw Levine whisper "Thank you" to Aimard, with the sincerity of someone who knows he's in the presence of greatness.)
After intermission, Levine and the orchestra returned with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra which, like Carter's Three Illusions, was commissioned by the BSO. In the 63 years since it's premiere, the Concerto has emerged as one of the great masterpieces of the 20th Century, notable for how it highlights all the various sections of the orchestra with solo-like passages. The music itself has moments of menace and mystery before emerging in the triumphant Finale, with driving brass and thunderous percussion that sent a chill straight up my already-shivering spine. Last season, I saw Levine conduct the Concerto with the BSO in Symphony Hall, and this performance confirmed for me that their interpretation is definitive.
Back tomorrow with Saturday's performances.