Back in 2005, during his first season as the Boston Symphony's Music Director, I saw James Levine in one of his earliest performances at Tanglewood, the BSO's summer home in the Berkshires. The concert, which combined Act I of Wagner's Die Walkure with Act III of Gotterdammerung and featured a panoply of stars from the Met, would have been remarkable under any circumstances. What made it truly extraordinary was that the band onstage wasn't the BSO, but the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra: a group of student musicians, most in their early 20's, many of whom had never heard this daunting music before in their lives, much less played it. Levine worked with the kids for over 80 hours rehearsing the nearly four hours of music, and they pulled off a performance that, while at times uneven, was as magical and captivating as any I've heard.
Levine has revived this project every Tanglewood season since then, taking the kids through Berlioz, Verdi and Mozart. But it wasn't until last night that he decided to take on Wagner again, this time a performance of Act III from his late comic opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. In addition to the the TMC Orchestra and Chorus and the professional Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Levine called upon many of the same heavy hitters he used when I last saw this six hour epic at the Met: James Morris as Hans Sachs, Johan Botha as Walther, Hei-Kyung Hong as Eva, Matthew Polenzani as David, and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen as Beckmesser. All were as brilliant as you might expect.
Screens hoisted above the audience projected close-ups of the performers, which at first felt like an unnecessary distraction (especially when it focused on Levine's slouched poses, or Botha's rhinestone shirt buttons.) It turned fascinating when the camera trained on the intensely-focused fellows, many of whom sighed with visible relief after navigating a difficult solo.
The one image I'll remember more than any other is that of a young first violinist, who smiled with wide-eyed wonder as she played a shimmering passage accompanying Sachs' tortured monologue, "Wahn! Wahn!," in which he complains of the world's madness. She seemed as if she could hardly believe what she was hearing: deep, lush strings, bass that thundered through the floor, a startling chorus that made you sit straight up in your chair. Clearly, she knew she was in the middle of something special, far more so than the Brahmins who apparently came out just for the novelty of seeing Levine and a bunch of opera stars. That violinist's surprise and rapture, more than anything else under the shed last night, is why this music will continue to be played for a long, long time. Which, of course, is why Jimmy took on this beast of a project in the first place. (More pics below.)