Traditionally, the BSO’s Tanglewood season concludes with a performance Beethoven’s Ninth, an overplayed sound-track triggering optimistic images of brotherhood and the profound goodness of the human heart. The mere fact that this became a ritual has drained it of musical significance—which has been replaced by its function as an ambiguous signifier; it has been pulled out to celebrate great occasions, cultural and political movements of all stripes, including by the Nazis.
Ligeti’s Trio for horn, violin, and piano is subtitled “Hommage à Brahms” since it was commissioned, in 1982, as a companion piece to Brahms’ trio for the same instruments. This is a rare instrumental combination owing to radical disparities in color, volume, and methods of tone production that challenge the composer to balance and blend their sounds. It was probably this quality that acted as one of the inspirations for this piece, which marked a turning point in the career of this composer. Ligeti does not consciously emulate Brahms in this work; if anyone, it is Beethoven who serves as a distant presence.
Welcome to the world of unselfconscious Mozart as it once was. When this LP first arrived in record bins in 1977, there was nothing stylistically unusual about romantically phrased performances of the composer’s music, delivered by large orchestras with substantial masses of strings. Herbert von Karajan, Bruno Walter, Karl Böhm, George Szell, all recorded “big” Mozart. Towards the end of the decade Josef Krips would turn out some nicely crisp late symphonies with the Concertgebouw for Phillips, a bit reduced in scale, but we were still a long way from the aggressive small dog Mozart which bites at our ankles today and answers to the word “Authenticity.”
Alan Feinberg, curator of the House Blend concert series at PS 21 in Chatham, has interesting ideas about how to bring together seemingly disparate repertory to provoke new perspectives. My second reaction to the unusual programming of the second concert was “what do these pieces have to do with each other?” (My first reaction was “Cool: I get to hear Biber, Wolpe, and Nancarrow, all in the same program?”) It makes you think as you listen, which is not a bad thing if what you are thinking about is the music you are (carefully) listening to; and the thoughts accumulate as you listen. My thought about the Biber Passacaglia for solo violin, composed in 1676 and a powerful precursor to Bach’s solo violin music, was this: Biber makes the violin sound like several voices singing in counterpoint. This is not something the violin normally does, but after Biber, it became conceivable.
Herbert Blomstedt is that rarity: a modest maestro. His most conspicuous distinction is his obvious love of music and music- making. That love is so substantial and sustaining that it has kept him on the podium operating at full throttle into the eighth decade of his career (and the tenth of his life). It is so intense that he conducts the entire standard repertory from memory and apparently does not need a baton; his formidable equipment consists of his arms and his face. These are enough for him to communicate in the most subtle and refined ways to his players, and, more importantly, to communicate his own inspiration directly to them. This is not only a general phenomenon, but one particular to every note and phrase.
In our 21st century barrage of high-profile concerts at major venues, streaming services, CDs, and now, with the COVID-19 Pandemic, Zoom, it takes some small effort to recover the occasional origins of the works we hear regularly as part of our diet of classical music. Historically the original context of the music is replaced by some other, contemporary event or circumstance deemed worthy of celebration by the organizers, whether it is a symbolic political event like the demolition of the Berlin Wall or some European Union event, the demise or commemoration of a musician or donor especially connected to the sponsoring program, or, once upon a time, Hitler’s birthday. We all know that there was a lot to celebrate in the season opener, even if Tanglewood had dispatched its most elaborate celebratory event the previous week in a July 4 event with the Boston Pops—and fireworks—usually held on the Esplanade in Boston.
Raymond Tuttle of Fanfare raised some seldom addressed questions recently about the subjectivity of music criticism. Those questions lead to even greater mysteries, I find. It isn’t often asked, for instance, why music exists at all, but that’s surely where one has to begin, if it is to matter what we say about it.
The A-list contains works that are already familiar to most concertgoers either through live performances or recordings. Their presence on programs means that audiences can anticipate their experience and compare their expectations with what they actually hear, for better or worse. The B-list, however, consists of works by composers which may be familiar, but which are less often performed, and therefore may offer listeners a first-time concert experience. Such was the case with the program offered by the TMC Monday night at Tanglewood. Membership in the B-list does not imply second-rate quality; it simply means that those responsible for programming (orchestra managers, conductors, commissioning bodies) have less faith in such works to attract audiences who like to know what to expect.