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The Boston Symphony Orchestra Returns to Live Performance at Tanglewood

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, 7/17/21
STOCKBRIDGE, Massachusetts - On a fairly unremarkable Tuesday in March 2020, I decided at the last minute to go see the NY Phil and Louis Langrée perform a concert at David Geffen Hall that included Debussy's Nocturnes and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Scriabin's explosive Poem of Ecstasy, and Ravel's mystical Shéhérezade (with the captivating mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.) The Phil played to their usual high standard, nbd.

Little did I know that would be the last live concert I'd see the Phil - or anyone - perform for sixteen months. 

Suffice to say: it's been a rough year-and-a-half all around. Aside from the horrifying human toll that COVID-19 has taken, countless musicians and performing artists lost their livelihood, scrambling to find other ways to pay their bills while keeping up their musical chops without anywhere to play (aside from parks, porches, and the occasional online gig.) No doubt more than a few hung up their guitars, saxophones, and concert dress for good.

For those that managed to stick it out, a nagging question remained: how would they sound? Is it fair to expect musicians coming off a year-and-a-half layoff to play as well as we remember? (Not to mention, would I remember how to write about them??)

For orchestras, which rely on the interplay of 70-100 highly skilled musicians all carefully listening to one another, the return of live performance seemed daunting to the point of impossibility. How could such a huge collection of individuals possibly play with any texture or nuance after having been apart for so long? Sure, there have been streaming concerts, with orchestras playing in empty halls, socially distanced from one another. But it's one thing to perform in front of a camera, another to play before a live audience.

Tanglewood Front Gate 2021
Many orchestras are jumping back to life this summer, taking advantage of open-air amphitheaters which allow for more audience spacing and better airflow than at regular concert halls. (The Phil is currently performing their first live concerts since that March 2020 program at the Bravo! Vail Festival in Colorado.) Such is the case with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has returned to live performance at Tanglewood after last summer's canceled season, the first such cancellation since World War II. 

Those of you who have followed this site for awhile know that Tanglewood is a special place for me, a sylvan wonderland in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts where music and nature combine to produce some of the most inspired performances I've ever heard. And so, it seemed only fitting that my first concert in sixteen months would be here, under the tall pines and with the Stockbridge Bowl in the distance - albeit obscured by rainclouds. Tanglewood Lawn
Things are a bit different at Tanglewood this year. All concerts - orchestral, chamber, solo - are being held in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, which normally seats 5,700 but is limited to 2,400. All other buildings, including Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center, are closed to the public. The lawn, which normally holds an additional 13,000, is capped at 6,600. (Yes, you can still bring your own wine, cheese and candelabra.) Mobile ticketing is being offered for the first time, and all concerts run less than 90 minutes, performed without intermission. 

Another change at Tanglewood this year is the programming. Unlike some other summer festivals, Tanglewood has never been a bastion of light "summer music", offering ambitious performances of symphonies, masses and operas by Mahler, Messiaen and Wagner, among others. None of those composers are on the schedule this summer, but you will hear plenty of Mozart, Haydn and Tchiakovsky, among others.

No matter: what's most important is that the BSO is back, as are the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center: the twenty-something musicians, composers and conductors who are the lifeblood of this 530 acre emerald campus. Also returning is music director Andris Nelsons who, in spite of being one of the world's most in-demand conductors, has been a consistent presence at Tanglewood since his appointment seven years ago. (Later this summer, Nelsons conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival, and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in Bayreuth and his native Latvia.)

Tanglewood ShedProkofiev's "Classical" symphony, which led off Saturday (7/17) night's concert, is an exercise in dichotomy. It's both old and modern, classical and romantic, Russian and Mozart-ian. The BSO played it with elegance and subtlety, playing off Nelsons' natural affinity for Russian music. The fleet, toe-tapping Finale (Molto vivace) was thrilling in its breathless energy. Ah, Tanglewood: it all suddenly felt so familiar, like I'd never left. 

After a moderately slow set change to bring out a Steinway Model D, pianist Daniil Trifonov joined Nelsons and the BSO for Brahms Piano Concerto No 1. Expectations were perhaps unfairly high: barely 30 years old, Trifonov has been hailed as "arguably today's leading classical virtuoso" (The Globe and Mail) and "without question the most astounding pianist of our age." (The Times of London) After his recital at Carnegie Hall in 2017, contributor Steven Pisano wrote: "I found myself completely bewitched by this captivating performer."

Trifonov, who these days sports a shaggy beard and hair falling down past his eyes, sat with his head down while the orchestra played the intro, looking lost in contemplation. When Trifonov finally raised his head and his elongated hands touched the keys, a shock shot up my spine: these were the first notes I'd heard from a live concert grand in more than a year. And not just heard: I could feel the sharp, slicing hits on the keys, the vibrations on the strings, the pounding of the pedals. Even in the cavernous Shed, you could feel the air being pushed around by this extraordinary musician.

Daniil Trifonov, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, 7/17/21Even by romantic piano concerto standards, the Brahms is a monster. Nearly an hour long, it requires epic reserves of stamina and concentration from the performer. This is not music where you want flash or histrionics: Brahms is best served by a serious, contemplative approach, preferably by a pianist in the latter stages of their career. But, in spite of his relative youth, Trifonov delivered the goods: seemingly in a trance throughout, he combined an almost mystical demesne with brilliant technique and flawless precision.

After the majestic opening movement (Maestoso) a passing storm marred the quiet Adagio, the thunder rolling endlessly off of the surrounding hills. But the rain passed just in time for the quicksilver finale (Allegro non troppo), with Trifonov's fingers flying up and down the keyboard. By the end, Trifonov had sweat pouring down his face, his long hair stuck together like a wet mop. He'd held absolutely nothing back. Credit, too, the BSO, who played with power and finesse, as if they'd never been apart. Given where things have been, this performance was nothing short of a miracle. 

Only after several rowdy curtain calls - which, despite the limited capacity, were some of the most emphatic I've ever heard in the Shed - did Trifonov consent to an encore: the relatively quiet and careful “Bist du bei mir” from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook (attr. Stölzel).Boston Symphony Orchestra, Daniil Trifonov, Andris Nelsons, Tanglewood, 7/17/21I was back in the Shed the following afternoon for a matinee of Mendelssohn and Mozart. It was a bit odd to see Nelsons - best known for his dramatic performances of Russian and German romantic music - on the podium conducting this lighter fare, but he treated the music with respect and fidelity, letting it speak for itself. 

A late cancellation by twin pianists Lucas and Arthur Jenssen due to "COVID-related travel issues" meant swapping out Mozart's concerto in E-flat for two pianos with the same composer's Violin Concerto No. 3. Played by Gil Shaham, who's been called upon before as a late substitute, the performance was capable but tepid, all but drowned out by the increasingly intense rain. 

Far more interesting was Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 5 "Reformation" (1830) which closed the program. More Romantic than Classical, the strings were shimmering and grand, sounding eerily similar to the Grail motive from Wagner's Parsifal, written 50 years later. Mendelssohn also employs liberal amounts of brass and percussion throughout, including the rousing, joyful conclusion.  Boston Symphony Orchestra, nelsons, Tanglewood, 7/18/21
As much as I wanted to, I couldn't stick around in person to hear Monday night's concert with Nelsons leading the TMC Orchestra, made up of fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center. Fortunately, I was able to catch it at home thanks to BSO Now, the BSO's new streaming platform, launched last year during the pandemic. Select concerts are streamed live, then archived for a limited period of time. (Subscription rates and information here.)

After music by Beethoven, Haydn, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Nelsons led the fellows in a crisp, sprightly performance of Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite. As with so many of these TMC performances I've witnessed over the years, close your eyes and you'd think it was a professional orchestra on stage. The future of music is well in hand. 

Concerts by the BSO and TMC at Tanglewood continue through August 16; details and tickets on the BSO's website

Andris Nelsons, TMC Orchestra, Tanglewood, 7/19/21

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