My own Tanglewood season began with this solid program in Seiji Ozawa Hall: a neglected program piece by an early 20th century composer, once more famous than he is today because of two isolated tone poems, the premiere of a substantial new work by a prominent former TMC Fellow, and a fresh look at an over-familiar symphony—the warhorse of all warhorses, some might say—by one of the canonical 19th century composers.
For me Cymbeline is all about the new Blackfriars Theater, an enclosed space, a place to speak quietly, a place lit by candles, a space that found William Shakespeare buying a house in the vicinity, a space for a riot of inventiveness, revived for us by Tina Packer. Think of the bedroom scene where Iachimo examines the sleeping Imogen. This scene played in The Globe would surely have produced some less than elegant speech from the crowd. Shakespeare and Company’s production chose something of a middle way, a humorous assault on Imogen’s person, which must have played better in the Blackfriars Theater, the audience being genteel, and their number being small.
The Merchant of Venice has always been called a problem play. I might call it a miracle play. Here is why. There is a role in this play which dominates—with fewer than 350 lines. In the hands of Jonathan Epstein, Shylock was believable, unavoidable. It is important to remember that the play comes to an end without Shylock, although there is some of his equivocation in his daughter, clearly. In Mr. Epstein’s performance I heard a rare understanding of how the role finds its power. His rich voice ranged very little from loud to soft, fast to slow.
The director of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music, Steven Stucky, was a fine composer whose music occupies a centrist position in the American musical landscape, not only in his prominence, but equally due to his traditionally-oriented style. Stucky’s premature death last February at the age of sixty-six deprived this year’s festival of a director and the music world of a distinguished voice, but in the FCM programming his musical personality is apparent. Imaginative and resourceful, his music has an appealing surface, a familiarity of materials, and a clear and direct emotional appeal, speaking to the influence of mainstream American composers like Aaron Copland.
The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste
The conductor’s arms froze mid-air. The musicians stopped playing. Stefan Asbury, leader of the Tanglewood Music Center conducting program, had stopped the class.
“They’re not together,” Asbury told Jonathan Berman, the student conductor. Berman gave a small nod. It wasn’t the response Asbury wanted.
“Do you want them to be together?” Asbury pressed, invoking a bit of tough love. This time a bigger nod from Berman.
These last weeks there was French music everywhere. An excellent program of alternating Debussy and Messiaen songs at Tanglewood with the Tanglewood Fellows, William Bolcom and Joan Morris at Mohawk Trail Concerts, and a Bastille Day performance of Tartuffe the Imposter at Shakespeare and Company. A lot of ink has been spilled describing, defining, perhaps destroying what is called “French style.” Bad pedagogy of this sort tries to get you to do something less than what you would normally do with a phrase if it were not French music. There is much pontificating about accuracy in the pronouncing of the language. French singers that I have known seem much more concerned with the flow of the language and the connectedness of it. Because a piece of music is easy on the ear does not mean it is less affecting for the heart.
For music to make sense, the performer has to be able to display its structure, discover its rhetorical gestures, and properly inflect its musical expression. The performer has to have the understanding, emotional sympathy, and musical ability to do all this. Two of the canonical twentieth century works on this program have offered serious challenges to both performers and audiences: are they arbitrarily constructed to shock and confuse us, or do they make sense? Despite the fact that they continue to raise such questions, both works have become relatively familiar in recent years, and are accepted as modern classics. Arkivmusic.com lists sixteen recordings of the Ives and nine of the Schoenberg; they turn up regularly on orchestral programs. Have audiences gotten to the point where they truly understand these pieces as presented? Have they caught up with Ives and Schoenberg? I think the answer is “not quite.” These remain challenging works, and the extent of the performers’ comprehension remains the critical factor. How well did the TMC Orchestra do under its two conductors? Let’s take each work separately.