Back to the Berkshires: the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood
"Music is one of the most important gifts we've been given from nature. It's all out there: all we need to do is organize the sound sources, and that search is the greatest fun. It's a search for something magical." - John Williams
There is no place in the world more meaningful to me - musically or otherwise - than Tanglewood: the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937. Nestled in the bucolic Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts, it offers a uniquely intoxicating mix of art and nature, of high-level musicianship and youthful energy (courtesy of the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center).
After no performances in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a pared-back schedule of limited capacity performances last summer, Tanglewood is happily back in full swing this year with a packed slate of concerts including opera, choral works, and new music. (The Festival of Contemporary Music is back this year for the first time since 2019.) From what I could tell during my visit to Lenox two weekends ago, everything felt more-or-less back to normal.
On Friday night (July 15), the Boston Pops performed live alongside The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the second (or, officially, fifth) film in the Star Wars saga. As most fans know, the music for all nine Star Wars films was composed by John Williams: a living legend who has written more than 100 film scores, 52 of them nominated for Oscars, winning 5. It is hard to overstate the impact Williams has had not only on film, but on music at large over the past 60 years. His music - largely Romantic and tonal, with triumphant fanfares and bracing flashes of dissonance - is immediately recognizable, its emotional impact unmistakable. There are any number of reasons for this, most of which can be chalked up to his insistence on writing music the old fashioned way.
"I still use a pencil and paper, the same way that I’ve always done," Williams told Berkshire Magazine earlier this summer. "I have to write every note out and every duplication of a different key. My younger colleagues all work with synthesizers and add track upon track on the recording processes, something they call “striping." In my case, I write the music and we assemble an orchestra and play it just as one might have done in 1850 instead of 1950."
Indeed, for Williams, the only difference between Hollywood and the concert hall is scale. "I am enormously grateful," he says, "as all composers are, to film for giving us the broadest possible audience worldwide that any composer has ever enjoyed. I'm certain that Beethoven would have shunned it, but Wagner would have had his own studio, with a water tower with a big "W" on it."
Far from slowing down, Williams - who turned 90 in February - has been busier than ever. ("I write six-and-a-half days a week," he says.) Over the past few seasons, Williams has been invited to conduct his own music with both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics - a rare honor for a living composer reserved for the likes of Mahler, Strauss and John's good friend, Leonard Bernstein. Williams has announced his retirement from film composing after he completes the score for the fifth (and presumably final) Indiana Jones film - but only so that he can spend more time writing concert music, which to date has produced more than a dozen concertos for the likes of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma, among others. (He's currently planning a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax.)
Williams, who lives in L.A., has been an annual presence at Tanglewood for more than 40 years, dating from his own tenure as Boston Pops conductor (1980-1993). He's written many of his famous scores in the Berkshires, and his annual Film Night always attracts the biggest crowd of the summer. (He also participated in this week's Tanglewood on Parade alongside four other conductors.) So, it's only appropriate that Williams will be fêted at Tanglewood with a gala 90th birthday concert on August 20, featuring performances by James Taylor, Branford Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma, among others.
Williams wasn't there in person to conduct The Empire Strikes Back - it was led by his successor Keith Lockhart, now in his 27th season as Pops conductor - but you wouldn't know it from the massive crowd assembled on the lawn and in the Shed, several with battery-powered light sabers. Empire came in the middle of an astonishing run for Williams, including Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters (1977), Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. (1982). But, even though it didn't win the Oscar (it lost to Fame), it is now regarded as one of Williams' most accomplished scores: darker and more sinister than its Oscar-winning predecessor, even pushing the limits of tonality at times.
"Star Wars was meant to be a simple hero's journey, a fantasy for young people," George Lucas said when Williams was awarded the AFI Life Achievement award in 2016." And then John wrote the music, and he raised it to a level of art that would stand the test of time."
The Empire Strikes Back includes some 107 minutes of music, reprising much of the primary music from Star Wars while introducing new themes, such as "Yoda's Theme" and the famous "Imperial March." It requires an orchestra of more than 100 musicians, including multiple oboes, piccolos, pianos, and harps. The Pops played with visceral intensity, taking only a brief intermission after more than an hour of near-continuous playing. By the time the final credits started to roll, much of the Shed audience got up to leave, seeming to forget there was a real live orchestra playing onstage. (To be fair, the credits stretched on for a full five minutes...)
"When we go to see any one of these movies in the theater," Williams remarked during Film Night in 2019, we don't realize what we're hearing. But, when you hear one of the greatest orchestras in the world play our film music before a live audience, you realize the kind of virtuosity that goes into making these films. You can also imagine what it does for a composer's ego!"
Unfortunately, I missed Saturday night's performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, but I was back in the Shed Sunday afternoon to hear the BSO under music director Andris Nelsons, who spent a full four weeks at Tanglewood this summer. (He's off to Salzburg now to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival.) It was sunny but unseasonably warm for the Berkshires; compared to Friday night, the lawn was less than half full. (You can hear WCRB's broadcast of the full concert here.)
The opening work on the program was a new concerto for piano four hands by the Turkish composer/pianist Fazil Say, Anka kusu (Phoenix), played by the Dutch brothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, who were supposed to perform at Tanglewood last year, but had to cancel due to "COVID-related travel issues." Split into three sections, the rhythmic, percussive music blends elements of jazz, classical and Turkish music, and requires the pianists to occasionally play inside the piano. It was brief but engaging music, enough to elicit a fleet encore of "The Ball" from Bizet's Jeux d'Enfants (Children's Games).
I have heard many memorable performances at Tanglewood, none more epic than a 2003 performance of Brahms' German Requiem with the BSO and Mormon Tabernacle Choir led by Rafael Frübeck de Burgos. The BSO performed the work again six years later with James Levine and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus - I was there again. And, I heard it yet again here on this concert, with Nelsons conducting the same forces.
For me, the appeal of Brahms' Requiem is that it is sui generis, at least in the rarefied world of requiems. For one, it's in German, as opposed to the traditional Latin Mass for the dead. It's also not really a requiem: instead of following the order of the Mass, it's made up of various selections of scripture, like Bach's Passions or Handel's Messiah. (Brahms called it "A German Requiem," as if to say it was only one of several possible requiems.) Most conspicuous of all, it lacks the fire and brimstone of requiems by Mozart and Verdi, instead offering solace to the family and friends of the departed.
Going along with the current zeitgeist, the BSO seems to be making a concerted effort to be more multicultural, at least in the booking of its guest artists. All but one of the soloists in Saturday's Don Giovanni were African-American; for the Brahms, both soloists were Chinese: soprano Ying Fang and bass-baritone Shenyang. This would be a welcome progression if it didn't feel somehow forced. The results were mixed: Fang had a clear, radiant voice, while Shenyang seemed to have trouble reaching the furthest reaches of the Shed.
Nelsons started with a lugubrious pace, really milking the the drama in the second movement, "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras ("For all Flesh is as Grass.") Things picked up further along, climaxing in the ecstatic chorus "Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt ("For here we have no eternal City.") The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led by James Burton, was powerful yet controlled, never sounding forced.
There are four more weeks of concerts at Tanglewood; tickets and information on the BSO website.