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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.

Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus  Tanglewood  7:7:17 - Feast of MusicNelsons' selection for Friday night's gala opening concert served as a potent reminder of what sets Tanglewood apart from other summer music festivals. Mahler's monumental second symphony, written for orchestra, chorus and two soloists, lasts some 90 minutes and is one of the most stirring, ambitious works in the orchestral repertoire. It's also a bit of an odd bird, full of jerky rhythms and weird, grotesque blasts: after hearing Mahler play through the funereal first movement, conductor Hans von Bülow exclaimed: "If what I have just heard is music, then I no longer understand anything about music." Ouch.

Nelsons led the sort of dramatic, drawn out performance he's become famous for, extending his full body and arms into the orchestra as if to coax the maximum possible emotion from them. The BSO played with majesty and precision, though I noticed some spottiness in the winds early on. Mezzo Bernarda Fink brought an Erda-like otherworldliness to her part while soprano Malin Christensson, making her Tanglewood debut, was clear and expressive, if a bit light in vocal heft.

Boston Symphony Orchestra - Tanglewood - Feast of Music July 7  2017 Jul 7  2017  9-41 PMBut this night, the show was stolen by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which makes its dramatic entrance late in the epic finale. Rarely have I heard a choir sing with such emotional depth and range: almost inaudible at the start, they quickly rose to a deafening crescendo, all the while sounding as well-blended as a summer cocktail. (Not to mention they all sang from memory.) Credit new BSO Choral Director James Burton, a Brit whose attention to detail brought to mind the work of his fellow countryman, Simon Halsey. Deservedly, the packed Shed responded at the end with a roar. (You can listen to an archive broadcast of the performance here. More pics here.)

Tanglewood Music Center - Douglas Balliett - Feast of Music Jul 8  2017 Jul 8  2017  6-54 PM
The following evening, I arrived early in time to catch the prelude concert in Ozawa Hall, with TMC fellows playing music from the 20th and 21st centuries. The clear standout was the world premiere of Doug Balliett's theatrical Beast Fights, written for tenor, harp, and seven double basses, Balliett's own instrument. Falling somewhere between Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, Balliett depicts a dystopian society which has revived the ancient Roman sport of animal fights to the death, each represented by a pair of dueling basses: Lion vs. Crocodile, Eagle vs. Snake, Polar Bear vs. Walrus. Then follows the ominous public execution of a woman (represented by the harp), "guilty of crimes against the state, against the President, and against our religion." Serving as emcee for the proceedings was the charismatic young tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole, whose acting chops were no less impressive than his singing.  

Boston Pops - Sondheim on Sondheim - Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 8  2017  8-07 PM Jul 8  2017  8-07 PMI'm not much of a Broadway guy, but even I have a deep reverence for the achievement of Stephen Sondheim, the Living Lion of American musical theater. In 2010, longtime collaborator James Lapine cobbled together a revue called Sondheim on Sondheiminterweaving footage of Sondheim with a smattering of famous and obscure numbers from his 20+ musicals.

On Saturday night in the Shed, the Boston Pops - which is made up of players from the BSO - presented a complete performance of Sondheim on Sondheim in a new orchestral arrangement by Michael Starobin, featuring a cast of Broadway stars performing alongside TMC vocal fellows. The show is a fascinating retrospective on Sondheim's life and career, which began in Doylestown, PA, where he learned the craft of writing musicals from his older neighbor, the legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (who years later had to twist Sondheim's arm into doing the lyrics for West Side Story.) 

Boston Pops - Sondheim on Sondheim - Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 8  2017  8-07 PM Jul 8  2017  10-011
The performance was led by Keith Lockhart who, in his 22nd year as Pops conductor, is clearly drinking from the Fountain of Youth. Among the Broadway stars, Ruthie Ann Miles - best known for her Tony-award winning performance in the recent revival of The King and I, and for originating the role of Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love - had a penetrating, luminous presence. Carmen Cusack - star of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star - had an innocent, ingenue quality that belied her powerful voice. They were joined by Tony-award winner Gabriel Ebert (Matilda) and Tony-nominee Philip Boykin, who recently appeared in the revival of Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway.

Boston Pops - Sondheim on Sondheim - Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 8  2017  8-07 PM Jul 8  2017  10-005
But, it was left to the TMC fellows to delivered Sondheim's two big show-stoppers. Daniel McGrew, who recently received his masters from Yale, brought to mind a young Mandy Patinkin with his tender, plaintive delivery of "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George. And Katherine Beck, who joins the young artist program at Opera Colorado this fall, brought the house down with "Send In the Clowns," prior to which played a video montage of renditions by everyone from Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra.

The highest praise I can offer is that, after living with Sondheim's music for 2+ hours, I found myself wanting to spend more time with his music, and with musical theater in general - a bounty of which is fortuitously just a short subway ride away. (Speaking of which, Assassinswhich Sondheim calls his "most perfectly realized musical" - is currently receiving a well-timed revival as part of Encores! at City Center. More pics here.)

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  10-01 AMThe next morning, I woke up to a picture-perfect Sunday and, after a few holes of golf, headed straight to Ozawa Hall, where the TMC fellows were hosting their weekly chamber music concert. The wide-ranging program included everything from Stravinsky's Octet to a Mozart serenade, but the main draw was a trio of new works all receiving their first performances. Edward Nesbit, a British composer who studied with George Benjamin, wrote Chorales, etc. for wind ensemble in response to Stravinsky's Symphony of Wind Instruments, achieving a pastoral-like quality that reminded me of the music of Samuel Barber. David Fulmer, whose music I heard last month on the New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! series, wrote Only in Darkness is Thy Shadow Clear for two pianos (played by Nathan Ben-Yehuda and Léon Bernsdorf), one of which is tuned down a quarter-tone, yielding 24 pitches per octave instead of the usual 12. The resulting music was dark, haunting, strange: "like shadows that appear nearer and further from their origins," according to Fulmer. 

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  11-022But, as impressive as Nesbit and Fulmer's works were, John Harbison's Quartet No. 6 was on a whole other plane. Harbison, whose long and accomplished career includes operas written for the Met, numerous orchestral works and a Pulitzer Prize, has nothing more to prove. And yet this quartet - played by the New Fromm Players - felt like a deeply personal statement, written with the urgency of someone half his age. Starting with only three players on stage, the missing violinist, Samantha Bennett, was soon heard playing off in the wings. She eventually appeared onstage, playing a few bars standing behind the rest of the quartet before finally taking her seat. The music was tonal yet wrenching, romantic yet agonizing - not unlike Bartók's haunting, otherworldly quartets. By the end, with the morning light shining through the clear-paned windows, everyone in Ozawa Hall knew they had experienced something rare and profound. (More pics here.)

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  2-10 PM
A few hours later, I was on my way to the afternoon concert in the Shed when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the piercing blare of an electric guitar and drum kit mixed with harsh, grating electronics. I poked my head into the small, rough-hewn building known as Maple Studio and found composer/guitarist Steve Mackey, chair of the Princeton Music Department, and Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion performing Mackey's Orpheus Unsung (2016). In a Q&A with a dozen or so fellows afterwards, Mackey - who, like Harbison, is on the TMC composing faculty - spoke about the genesis of the piece as "an opera without words," working closely with Jason on the numerous improvised sequences. Mackey also dispensed some more general advice for young composers. "When I was in grad school, my music lived on my teacher's desk, awaiting his approval. Now, composers don't even write down some of their work...Always be open to a better idea." (This video offers some of Mackey's deeper insights, including his staunch belief that music should be written for an audience, not someone reading it on a page. A bit different from his predecessor Milton Babbitt's perspective. More pics here.)Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 10  2017  7-33 AM.17(Photo: Hilary Scott)

Over at the Shed, Nelsons was back on the podium, leading the BSO in a program that seemed custom made to accompany a picnic on the sunsplashed lawn. Mozart's 3rd Violin Concerto was a mostly pleasant - if forgettable - first course. The main draw was the debut of 16 year old Swedish violinist Daniel Lozakovich, who played with skill, if not much feeling; my guess is that Deutsche Grammophon, the German classical label to which both Nelsons and Lozakovich are signed, strong-armed the BSO into putting him on. At least Lozakovich was age appropriate: Mozart, who wrote the concerto when he was 19, played his own solo part in the premiere. And, Lozakovich's encore, Fritz Kreisler's Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice, had much more meat to it, giving the audience a sense of his real future potential. 

 Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  4-044
After intermission, Nelsons returned to conduct more Mahler - this time, his 4th symphony, which is as simple and childlike - for Mahler, at least - as the 2nd symphony is grandiose and dramatic. After the wild mood swings of the first two movements, the 3rd movement (marked "Ruhevoll" or "Serene") strikes the ear as pure ear candy, climaxing about 3/4 of the way through with a four chord descending figure that seems to float down from the sky, followed by a sudden, jolting explosion in the brass and percussion.

For the finale, the BSO was joined by Nelsons' wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, whose bombshell appearance - wild mane of blonde hair, clinging peach dress - seemed at odds with the text, which depicts a child's vision of heaven. (Not to mention it's called: "The Boy's Magic Horn.") Still, Opolais, who's somewhere between a lyric and dramatic soprano, put her voice to good use, singing with penetrating emotion and clarity. Beyond her obvious connection to Nelsons, Opolais, who has the looks and acting chops to go with her voice, should be on the brink of a major career, provided she doesn't forfeit her opportunity. (More pics here.)

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  8-05 PM
After a relaxed, yet eventful afternoon gazing out over the mountains in back of Highwood Manor, I heard the piercing sounds of trumpet and orchestra coming from the Shed, and strolled over to investigate. Imagine my surprise when I saw Nelsons - wearing an electric blue polo and matching kicks - onstage rehearsing the TMC Orchestra in advance of their performance Monday night in Ozawa Hall. They were playing through a pair of contemporary trumpet concertos by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, featuring Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger and BSO principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs. Sitting in a nearly-empty shed with the setting sun streaming in from the west, I was mesmerized watching Nelsons - himself an accomplished trumpeter - guide the fellows through this tricky, convulsive music, playing it straight through without pause. When they were done, Nelsons said something encouraging to the fellows and then, lacking an audience, they gave themselves a raucous ovation. One of the more disarmingly charming moments I've had at Tanglewood. (More pics here.)

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  8-27 PM
My final stop of the day was back at Ozawa Hall, where the TMC vocal fellows performed a program of songs from the Great American songbook commemorating the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald's birth. They were joined onstage by members of the Boston Pops along with their powerhouse teachers, soprano Dawn Upshaw and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. All showed formidable talent, belting out standards by Gershwin, Irving Berlin and others. But, if you want to do Ella, you need to swing, and these kids just didn't have the chops: they're being trained to sing in opera houses and concert halls, not jazz clubs. (More pics here.)

Nelsons is back at Tanglewood all this weekend, including tonight's complete performance of Wagner's Das Rheingoldwith Blythe stepping into the role of Fricka (replacing Sarah Connolly), alongside Thomas Mayer (Wotan) and Kim Begley (Loge). Nelsons, who missed his 2013 Tanglewood debut after hitting his head on a doorframe in Bayreuth, clearly knows his Wagner - though I imagine it'll be some years before he'll be ready to do it with the fellows. All in good time, Maestro.

Tanglewood - Feast of Music Jul 9  2017  11-52 AM
More info on the remainder of Tanglewood's season here