This evening at Tannery Pond Concerts was outstanding because it was so fully awake. None of the musicians showed the least inclination to rely on traditional formulae, and performances like this can work wonders for any kind of concert-goer, the casual drop-in, as much as the dedicated music-lover, who has become a little to comfortable with traditional playing. It all culminated in an unforgettable reading of Brahms’ much-loved Piano Quartet in G Minor, surely one of its greatest hours.
Feral fairies. Anyone afraid of a sugar overdose had nothing to worry about at the English National Opera’s fiercely odd production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a company that often traffics between radical and gimmicky, every once in a while being capable of acts of metamorphosis. In this case the director, Christopher Alden, seems to have taken his cue from the first sound we hear: slithery glissandos in the lower strings that introduce the fairy world not with whimsy and a twinkle but a wave of sea-sick nausea. In a daring move, the entire production metastasizes from the queasiness of that sound. The initial effect was to travesty Shakespeare’s magical comedy — audience members who stalked up the aisle before the first act ended clearly didn’t appreciate such high-handedness — but the music has never sounded so disturbing, or so convincing.
Shakespeare and Company’s touring production of Hamlet was swift and sharp. It had something of the intransigence of youth about it. The focus was sharply on Katherine Abbruzzese’s performance in the title role. All other roles were ably, nimbly taken by several actors who needed to be able to move quickly. This necessarily pushed the play toward melodrama. This was not bad. Ms. Abbruzzese was well-able to provide us with the energy and the virtuosity made necessary by the fleet, never-stopping direction. She seemed to be able to inhabit a world between genders without effort, like Hamlet seems to. This made me see Ophelia as more female than female, and that had a knife-edge tenderness.
Even before Handel’s pastoral sinfonia was very far along, I found myself deeply immersed in the human activity I observed on the stage of Jordan Hall. Around the orchestra, who were dressed in unobtrusive modern black, some half dozen creatures of Queen Anne’s day, or, more precisely, early Hanoverian days, busied themselves about a capacious drawing-room, until five of them came together to sing the opening chorus, “Oh the pleasure of the plains,” evoking the landscape around Cannons. Actually they were looking into a pastoral landscape painting, its back to the audience. (At the end it was turned to reveal the composition.) While pictures were brought in and set on an easel for appreciation and perhaps purchase—the absence of a permanently hung gallery suggested that the house was not yet finished—two gentlemen at either end of the stage worked away at writing: one, Mr. Handel, was setting down notes, and the other—actually two, Mr. Gay and Mr. Pope—words. What was so absorbing about this was not so much the business itself, which is familiar enough even in early eighteenth century dress, but the mood.
The saint of Bleaker Street. Morose, manic, and methodical. They all alliterate with Magyar, the Hungarian spirit that ran through Bartók, and each term applies to his music. But the saddest match would be martyr. In God’s calculus of gifts, to those who suffer most, the most is given. Bartók’s soul must have believed in that formula. Like the other two titans of modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, he was triply alienated, being a genius, an expatriate, and a logician of the abstruse. All three composers were forced to deal with their complex fates, yet Bartók made of his a via dolorosa.
It is painful to think that Clarence Clemons’ sax will never be heard again. I only saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play once, on the 22nd of March 2003 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The experience was simultaneously unforgettable and disappointing, both for the audience and, I would imagine, the band, who have not ventured so far south since. The best efforts of Springsteen, Clemons and the rest were thwarted by the SCG’s horrific acoustics and a sound system which, whether due to interference from eastern suburbs cell phones or gremlins, repeatedly conked out entirely. The silver lining was a very special treat, a big, shaggy rendition of “Rosalita,” the only time it was played on the Australian part of their tour. During the sudden intervals of silence when the machinery broke down, the band kept playing, either in the hope that the malfunction would be brief, or because the huge E Street sound, like a locomotive, takes some time to come to a complete stop. Clemons, of course, who needed no amplifier, was so intrinsic to that sound that you anticipated his roaring solos even when he wasn’t playing.
Hubbard Hall is a space which seems to fit its performers ideally. No pretension, no million dollar sets, and a willingness to use local actors if they are good enough. Every show I have seen there has gained a directness and an honesty from this space. Director Kevin McGuire’s Merrily We Roll Along, performed by the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall, was clearly articulated. The artificiality of the musical itself was not entirely overcome, but there was a clear way through the episodic book. I can’t say it seemed like great Sondheim. It sounded like Sondheim, but it lurched and iterated its fundamental points all too often.
On Palm Sunday there was a remarkable Boston Conservatory concert of music by Jan Swafford. Swafford is widely known for his books on Charles Ives and Brahms, and The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. He is known locally also for many fine program notes and pre-concert talks for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Swafford has been writing music going back to the 1970s and has had performances in many places and won awards for this work. The recent concert centered around the cello, magnificently played—even heroically, considering the amount and intensity of the material—by Emmanuel Feldman, who was joined variously by his excellent colleagues in the Omega Trio, violinist Eva Gruesser and pianist George Sebastian Lopez