The Tanglewood Vocal Fellows singing Bernstein made a marvelous display of fine technique, verbal intensity, and general cooperation that wowed me. I have always heard A Quiet Place with a sense of bewilderment, sometimes wondering where the opera came from. An adventure in newness, one must listen to it carefully, repeatedly, to find its inside. Let me say at this point that there was spectacular vocalism, particularly by soprano Elaine Daiber as Dede, whose golden voice roamed from below the staff to atmospheric heights with ease.
The excellent Stephane Denève chose two works of Hector Berlioz for his TMCO concert. Wholly remarkable was a performance of Les Nuits d’Été. The maestro gave these songs a sound I’ve never heard before. It was ravishingly quiet to begin with, not unlike the nearly silent playing Simon Rattle can achieve in his Mahler performances. It was like something in the air. Even more unforgettable was the coaching he had done with the young singers, each a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center. So diaphanous was the orchestral environment for each of the songs, the young voices could merely whisper and be heard. “Au Cimitière” in particular benefitted from this. Sara Lemesh said the words as much as she spoke them.
The “overture” to the Barrington Stage Company’s production of On the Town, the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, wasn’t written by the composer. The honors belong to John Stafford Smith, who with later lyrics by Francis Scott Key, wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It’s an unexpected way to begin this hilarious and horny show about three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City, but the anthem creates the context of the time. The show occurs during World War II and was premiered in December of 1944. The national anthem was played before every performance of On the Town’s initial Broadway run and is now a tradition with director John Rando’s productions.
“We Are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret”, a concert of Leonard Bernstein’s songs in The Colonial was one of the two or three best things I have heard this summer. Many thanks to the Berkshire Theatre Group for giving this to us. Here were four singers – here were four actors. I have rarely seen such a finished understanding of how one kind of vocalism becomes another. With the excellent Michael Barrett on piano, Alan R. Kay on clarinet, and John Feeney on contrabass, we heard a great deal of one of the maestro’s finest compositions, “Trouble in Tahiti”, and a superior selection from other shows. The songs were introduced by Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein. There was not too much talking. All was natural as if the songs were new-minted. Each of the singers made a comprehensive narrative of the material and seemed to be singing it before they made any sound, and long after. This concert wasn’t a succession of excerpts, but searing moments that also had naturalness. I wish each of my students could have heard this concert.
Varieties of modern orchestral experience, British and American, were on display at the concluding event of this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, with three out of four offerings featuring the full (or over-full) resources of large ensembles. The Carter song-cycle used the pared-down configuration of a good-sized chamber-orchestra to support the solo soprano. Each work inhabited a distinctive sound-world and had its own conductor; it was almost as if we were hearing four different orchestras. It would be neat if I could diagram the four pieces as the points on a musical compass, but the chronological distance between the Copland (1946) and the rest (1982-2010) was such that the picture would look more like a buried root system connected to the leafy ends of three branches, and not all even belonging to the same tree. (Freud said that you are bound to run into problems if you try to construct a physical model of the mind; I’m having the same problem with this set of pieces.) But one implicit subtext may have inadvertently bound three of the four works together, that of war and peace.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.
The story of the creation of Candide is a fascinating but hardly edifying one, considering the result: a series of miscellaneous libretti and various combinations of musical numbers, none of which are really satisfactory. Nonetheless, it is hard not to become engaged in its rag-tag series of satirical scenes adapted from Voltaire’s classic novella, and it is even harder not to fall in love with the music, which is stage Bernstein at his best. A cult has grown up around it, and Bernstein himself was especially fond of the score, returning to it several times, including at the very end of his life, when he conducted a concert version at the Barbican, which was videotaped and recorded.