Tanglewood Festival Retrospective 2007

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Tanglewood, Photo © 2007 Michael Miller

I’ve already said much more than I ever wanted to about the state of the Tanglewood Festival and the pointless discussion stirred up by a few articles and editorials in the Berkshire Eagle—both in Berkshire Fine Arts and our current Commentary. Since the festival faces no real crisis either in finances or attendance, what matters is the music. This is James Levine’s fourth season as music director of the Boston Symphony. The various difficulties arising from his intense working methods, his health, and, I believe, the evolution of his own musicianship are now in the past. The orchestra and Tanglewood now form a larger part of his commitments. The orchestra now play better than they have in years, consistently on a very high level for Mr. Levine and for guest conductors as well. He conducted more BSO concerts than in previous summers, and he is thoroughly involved with the Tanglewood Music Center. Not every one of Levine’s interpretations may strike every listener as equally compelling, but I know of no one who shows such a passion for music in everything he does. His enthusiasm and high standards have made a most definite impression on Tanglewood, and now one can go there in the expectation of hearing interesting, if largely conservative programs played by the Boston Symphony at the top of their form, not to mention the superb TMC Orchestra and Opera Fellows, soloists and other extras which are making an appearance, most notably the series of world-class early music and historical instrument groups.

I see a significant improvement on all fronts, a clear sign that everything is coming together for both the orchestra and the festival. If Tanglewood continues to offer music of this quality, the last clouds of boredom among the people from New York and Boston, who may have lost interest over the Ozawa years, will pass away and attendance will grow steadily. Not that attendance seemed to be much of a problem this year. According to my own unscientific glances around the Koussevitzky Music Shed and the lawn concerts were very well attended. Ozawa Hall was always close to capacity, and the opera productions in the Theater were sold out. If the fringes of the shed and lawn were empty, one should remember that they are not the same thing as a jumbo jet on its way from New York to Singapore. If all the concerts were equally packed, it would even be an unhealthy sign. We all know that there is music very much worth hearing that is not going to appeal to the broadest audience, and that that is all the more reason for the very best musicians and orchestras to go on playing them. If not, there would have been no Gurrelieder last year, or Bluebeard’s Castle this year, although Bluebeard in fact drew a large, enthusiastic audience.

Repeated from last November on August 17, Bartók’s one-act opera was one of the most important and successful of the Shed performances this year. Once a rarity (its only previous performance by the BSO was in 1980.), interest in the work has been picking up over the years. (Three days later, Christoph von Dohnányi led the Philharmonia Orchestra in a superb performance at the Proms, accessible like many of the Proms concerts via streaming audio from BBC 3.) Bartók finished this brief, intense work in 1911, but he was unable to arrange a performance until 1918, revising it considerably in the meantime. The opera is a setting of a play by Béla Balász, a literary man of German-Jewish extraction, who irked the Hungarian intellectuals with whom he wished to assimilate himself with his left-wing politics and teutonophilia. (Interestingly, like Georg C. Klaren, the librettist of Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf, Balázs built up a reputation in cinema, and his theoretical and critical writings are still read today.) He took the story of the dreadful Duke Bluebeard, who murdered one wife after another, from European folklore and Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist libretto. (A recording of Paul Dukas’ opera after it, Ariane et Barbe-bleu, under Leon Botstein, was released only a few months ago.) In the story, one of the wives uncovers his atrocities by opening a series of forbidden doors in his castle. Balázs in his version has pared this down to a minimum, and the doors are opened through the dialogue of Bluebeard and his new wife, here called Judith. There is little action beyond the successive opening of seven doors. Each revelation changes the dramatic and moral situation, the mood, and the dynamics between the two characters. Through the first five the light Judith brings into the gloomy castle appears to lead towards some sort of redemption. Bluebeard, who has allowed her to proceed so far, resists her at this point, but she persists and in doing so seals her own fate. In this performance Levine’s Wagnerian sweep and Straussian color worked effectively with those elements in Bartók’s treatment and made for a reading of great dimension and power. Michelle DeYoung (who will be singing the role again with Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra at Severence Hall in Cleveland on February 14-16) made the most of Judith’s loving, but courageous nature and showed impressive control over all the intricacies of her vocal part. Samuel Ramey, who has years of experience in the part, was an ominous, self-contained Bluebeard. The spoken introduction by a bard was colorfully acted by Örs Kisfaludy. The concert ended, as it did in November, with a vivid performance of Brahms’ First Symphony, most responsively played by the orchestra. I am absolutely not convinced by Mr. Levine’s decision to follow Bartók’s chilling tragedy with Brahms’ triumphant symphony, but I admired his straighforward performance and the BSO’s enthusiastic playing nonetheless.

Another welcome event was the return of Mark Elder, who has held a number of distinguished positions in the UK, including the English National Opera, and, most recently, the Hallé Orchestra. This summer he conducted two concerts with the BSO and one with the TMC Orchestra. I was only able to attend the All-Beethoven program of Friday, July 20, in which he conducted a solid, energetic, fully-alive Fourth Symphony, and a nuanced, responsive accompaniment toImogen Cooper in the Third Piano Concerto. Her reading was full-toned and large in scale, balancing grand chords with delicate passage-work and pianissimi. Along with her ability to project so many different aspects of classical works like this, she approaches them with a poised reserve or detachment, only for the better, as it gives her playing a magisterial authority. However, as fine as these performances were, Mark Elder undergoes a transformation, it seems, when he touches theatrical music. He becomes a sort of theatrical demon, conjuring up a vivid sense of the excitement of the stage. One perceived that immediately in his Leonore Overture no. 1, which in fact was never performed in the pit as a prelude to Beethoven’s opera. He wrote it for an 1807 Prague performance which never came off and never conducted it himself. That didn’t stop Mr. Elder from evoking a vivid, even intense feeling of drama and anticipation. He also accompanied Christine Brewer, who has sung Leonore so splendidly in Colin Davis 2006 recording of Fidelio and James Levine’s concert performance with the BSO this past spring in “Abscheulicher, wo eilst Du hin?” with similar intensity. Ms. Brewer sang splendidly, making the most of its many turns of mood and expression within the context of its presentation as a showpiece.

In his other concerts, Elder conducted Sibelius’ Second Symphony and Shostakovich’s First along with other interesting works. I’d be surprised if these performances were not as distinguished as the Beethoven, but I can’t help thinking that an opportunity has been missed. He is highly regarded as an Elgar interpreter, and some complement to the Bard Festival would surely have been in order. His sense of drama and and control of rapid changes of mood and orchestral color make him quite an extraordinary Elgarian, as I recently heard in his excellent recording with the Hallé of Elgar’s Second Symphony.

James Levine’s Mahler Third was much-anticipated. However, as beautifully prepared and executed as it was—Levine clearly loves the quality of Mahler’s writing in every bar—it failed to convince me that it is a successful composition. After an initial rush of enthusiasm back in college, I’m tempted to think of the Third as pretentious, over-long and over-elaborate, a self-infatuated effusion after more substantial work in the second. There are many beautifully conceived passages, one after another; after all, J. S. Bach managed to dispatch these weighty questions of life and death within a scant thirty minutes from the Lutheran Sunday service. Perhaps Leonard Bernstein with all his smoke and mirrors might lead one further into Mahler’s world, but the straightforward honesty of Levine’s musicianship left me admiring Mahler’s skillfully wrought surface. I thought the boy choir was a bit too loud and plump, and Stephanie Blythe seemed quite wooden in her approach to Mahler’s portentous setting of Nietzsche. What’s more, I heard some very strange and unpleasant sounds emerging around Ms. Blythe’s interestingly dusky contralto, which I began to realize were probably not human. I’d be astonished to learn that James Levine would allow amplification for a singer on the Music Shed stage, even to help one who is having a bad night. Occasionally in live performance solo voices do recede behind the orchestra, and this is only natural. Only a singer’s misplaced ego might find this objectionable. In any case the results were grotesque, as equally unhelpful to Ms. Blythe as to Mahler. In all fairness, I believe I noticed a much smaller trace of this in Ms. Brewer’s “Abscheulicher.” But amplification, if that is in fact what I heard, has no place in any decent opera house or concert hall, and the Koussevitzky Music Shed is indeed one of them.

To look across the channel once again, I should mention that Claudio Abbado conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony at the Proms on August 22, leading his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with the impressive results one might expect. After all, Mahler specifically said the “The symphony must be like the entire world. It must embrace everything.” Perhaps we should just meet him on his own terms.

Of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos‘ performances, I have already discussed his fine Beethoven Ninth. I also heard his Mozart and Haydn program of August 12. I was sorry to see that he has returned to the old BSO seating of the two violin sections together. Especially in the Music Shed this is no help to textural clarity, and I thought it particularly unfortunate in the otherwise excellent performance of Haydn’s Mass in Time of War with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under John Oliver. Mr. Frühbeck de Burgos gave us a lithe overture to the Nozze di Figaro as a curtain-raiser, followed by a fluent and polished performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271 by Emanuel Ax, who acknowledged its darker moods with poise and grace. As for the mass, it was, apart from textures which were not as clear as they could have been, generously performed, full of expression and dramatic contrast in dynamics and tempo. Frühbeck de Burgos was alive to every aspect of its feeling and grandeur, and in the context, he felt no need to impose any “churchiness” or classicizing restraint on its dramatic mode of expression. Haydn was not the only composer to relate to the liturgy in operatic terms. Sally Matthews, soprano, Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano, Eric Cutler, tenor, and Dietrich Henschel, bass-baritone were all excellent, looking rather oddly Edwardian in their particular outfits, although I must especially praise Sally Matthews’ strong, bright soprano and her confident adoption of her joyful music. This was very much a performance of the concert hall with orchestra, chorus and solists of the highest caliber under the direction of one of the strongest conductors around.

If Mahler failed to overwhelm, Gustav Holst faired much better. At the July 9 TMC Orchestra Concert in Ozawa Hall, Stefan Asbury led a brilliant performance of The Planets, a work which has suffered from excessively familiarity. He was careful to keep the dynamics of the famous opening of Mars under control, and one was able to appreciate fully Holst’s colorful Wagnerian orchestration, as well as to absorb the true power of the music. This range and nuance held throughout Asbury’s reading, which also benefitted from the lively Ozawa Hall acoustics and the enthusiasm of the orchestra. Asbury attacked the piece with intense concentration, a quality, I believe, which is necessary, if Holst’s free treatment of form is to be fully persuasive. The concert also included a neat and perceptive reading of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin under TMC Conducting Fellow Erik Nielsen, and an intense, almost explosive performance under Conducting Fellow Kazem Abdullah of Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. His relentless energy produced tremendous excitement among both the orchestra players and the audience and earned him a wild ovation. While a certain aspect of this personable young conductor’s talent was more than obvious, I regret that I was unable to attend the TMC Orchestra concert the following Monday, in which he conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 in C, the “Oxford,” a more telling test of just where a conductor is at.

This was a great year for the TMC Orchestra. In addition to their concerts in Ozawa Hall, they played Verdi’s Don Carlo, Mozart’s Così fan Tutte under James Levine, and Beethoven’s Ninth under Frühbeck de Burgos, but they were missed at the Festival for Contemporary Music. They also issued their first recording, a two disc set, which including three performances from last year, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite no. 2 under Stefan Asbury, and the Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich in E minor, Opus 93 under Bernard Haitink. You should go ahead and buy it, if you have any interest in any part of this varied program. These are energetic performances under the direction of two acknowledged masters of the repertory in question, as well as Stefan Asbury, who is always worth hearing. The recording, made during performances in Seiji Ozawa Hall is lively, but not too close. On the other hand it is close enough to expose a few rough entrances, which were barely audible in the hall.

There remains only to discuss the unforgettable performance of J. S. Bach’s B minor Mass by The Netherlands Bach Society in Seiji Ozawa Hall. This summer retrospective is long enough at this point, and I’ll discuss it in detail in my forthcoming summary of early music and original instrument performances of this past summer. It should be clear enough that this was a remarkably strong season at Tanglewood. I heard nothing that was not at a very high level of musicianship. Times have changed from the hit or miss days of only a few years ago. If Don Carlos was vocally uneven, orchestrally it was a revelation, as was Levine’s Tchaikovsky Fourth and Asbury’s Planets. Così Fan Tutte was a total delight, and Bluebeard’s Castle was magnificent. The Juilliard String Quartet’s anniversary performance of three of Bartók’s string quartets was another high point. In fact, with the other performances I have discussed and Levine’s performance of the Concerto for Orchestra, Tanglewood provided a mini Bartók festival. The Tanglewood Festival of 2007 amply fulfilled its two missions of providing symphonic, chamber music, and opera the highest quality to the public, and of educating the next generation of musicians in the full range of classical music as it is practiced today. The concerts by period instrument groups, Hesperion XXIThe Orchestra of the 18th Century, and The Netherlands Bach Society, (the latter two sponsored by NL, the important Berkshire-wide celebration of Dutch culture) were a welcome addition, avidly appreciated by large audiences, and I warmly hope that this component of the festival will continue to grow in the future.

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