I get in my little car, and I go to marvelous things. My favorite is the Mohawk Trail Concerts. This marvelous series, run by Ruth Black, was for years the summer destination of the great Jan DeGaetani, and still boasts yearly visits from Joan Morris and William Bolcom. At various times I have heard the Fiordiligi who was singing Don Giovanni with James Levine at Tanglewood, a young woman who was sitting principal cellist later in the summer for a great performance of the Alpine Symphony with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and major artists like Carol Wincenc. I have never heard a bad concert in this venue. The structure itself is a small church in the hamlet of Charlemont, Mass. Everything about the concert is informal. Mrs. Black speaks elegantly before each concert. One feels like one is at home. There is an almost bewildering variety to the series. It is not expensive. This summer I heard an all-too-rare performance of Fauré’s piano quartet, Op.15 played by an old friend, John van Buskirk and the other members of the La Belle Alliance Trio. This was limpid, detailed playing with an acute sense of the quick-changing affect Fauré’s music possesses, early or late. The trio made these shifts, like the shifts in thinking itself, into a consistent rhetoric that showed me how neglected this masterpiece is. It was an unaffected performance, which I was able to hear from about ten feet away. When you go, take note of a magnificent elm tree just across the street from the church. The elm is majestic. The church is humble. Hearing music in these concerts is a real experience, not a media event.
Tannery Pond Concerts is similarly comfortable, even familial. I was very privileged to hear two superb young Russian-born pianists there in the barn of the Darrow School in New Lebanon, Mass. It would be hard to think of two more different approaches to piano playing than was on display in these concerts. Vassily Primakov was the very model of the Russian virtuoso, although with a lyrical tinge. He tried to help us like the Schumann Sonata no. 3 in F minor, op. 14, a piece that has never been able to compete with the great Fantasie in C, and he made a passionate case for it, but I was not convinced. A listener ahead of me explained that there were just too many notes. Not really – just not the right notes in the right shape to keep us rolling along with it. Again this was no fault of Mr. Primakov’s. When Mr. Primakov got to the Rachmaninoff Preludes, there was a kind of measured magnificence to his physical playing. There was no banging. His virtuosity was a several thing, not just an impressive thing. Each prelude emerged with my knowing precisely what the pianist meant. Ilya Poletaev played an entirely different program in a very different way. An expert harpsichordist, he played Bach on the piano as well as any I have heard. The Allemande in the Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828, played with all the repeats, was an apotheosis of the spiritual dance. This pianist can play with a kind of lightness that makes the piano an old instrument. All that he played was deeply considered. There was nothing there to provide a cheap thrill. His intelligence was luminous.
The absence of Maestro Levine being the case, this might have been a disappointing summer for the Tanglewood Music Center. Recent alumni of the Center singing Pelléas et Mélisande with him was to have been the highlight of the season for me. As it turned out, it wasn’t a disappointing summer, and it wasn’t disappointing in surprising ways. Fellow Ken-David Masur conducted everything with theatrical sharpness. All the sections of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije music were specifically heard. The early pages of the Leonora Overture No. 3 were not lacking in restraint, a quality even older conductors sometimes fail to give it. Mr. Masur made us wait in the opening pages—this was beautifully done. Sarah Lewis excelled in her playing of both the oboe and the English horn. The speaking quality of her playing came out into the hall as if on wings. There was a tremendous performance of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony conducted by Jaap van Zweden. It wasn’t only the first and last movements of the Symphony that gave us the very top level of virtuosity—especially from the strings—the inner movements had a kind of razor-edged energy in their grace. This concert deserved the roaring ovation it got. Stephanie Blythe put together a concert of settings of Baudelaire’s poetry in which she and several Fellows recited the verse and then sang it. This was a splendid idea. As she said in her introduction to the concert, she has often sung to the tops of peoples’ heads as they were feverishly reading the English translations. This way, they actually had to listen. Best of all was a concert I will never forget, a kind of 90th birthday party for the master teacher, Phyllis Curtin. I hesitate to mention any of the superb young singers involved specifically, both because they were excellent without exception, and because this concert was all about a unity of artists. Rarely have I felt so proud to be an artist as on this day. Time was made powerless by a long concert that could have gone on forever. There was a spirit of absolute oneness among all, those listening and those singing. At one point, Dylan’s lyric about staying forever young rang out, and we all were young because we all loved our deathless art. When Ms. Curtin stood up at the end of the concert, all of us knew that here was a great teacher, and time would never dilute what she taught us.
I have often enjoyed going to the Stables Theatre at The Mount, particularly for their lecture series, which was really excellent. There is now a theatrical venture, The Wharton Salon, which is also a very worthwhile project, and one I hope will flourish. I took in their dramatization of Edith Wharton’s short story “Autres Temps…”. I can’t say that the narrative itself captivated me. It is very difficult to change the working method of a short story into something that works in theatrical time. Often dialogue seemed just one notch too slow. The experienced actors worked hard to manage this. Since there was basically only one real action in the piece- that being whether the protagonist would enter a room and face her detractors-and this was in fact an action she decided not to take, it was a long series of conversations. This can work. One could say it is the operative technique in most of Shaw’s dramas. Here it seemed a bit contrived. I also was not convinced that American aristocrats would talk to each other in private with such a hoity-toity tone. Can it be that these words, which I assume were very close to Wharton’s own words, had an almost comical irony to them that could have been played successfully? More than once it occurred to me that this script was closer to comedy than tragedy, not because of the performers, but because of the protracted way the main decision was taken. I liked very much the vivid and energetic acting of Rory Hammond, and I look forward to seeing her work in the future.
The Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre apprentices were given the privilege of participating in a Dido and Aeneas which was professionally directed and in which they could sing with professional singers. I would have expected nothing less from the enterprising Alexina Jones. There were some striking ideas in the staging– the Messenger being wounded, for example; the kind of death-march that Dido took as she left the stage. There were vivid performances particularly from apprentice Kaitlyn McMonigle as the Sorceress and the sweet-voiced Sanghyun Im as the sailor (Full disclosure I’m proud to say he is my student.) This was a disciplined, rigorous event, and the house was pleased. Each of the young artists in this program and their teachers have done something admirable.
The venerable Chester Theatre Company, founded by Vincent Dowling who ran the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, once again put on a display of brilliant acting in its The Turn of the Screw and Wittenberg. The two actors in Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of The Turn of the Screw were the very figures of virtuoso acting. “She” because of the length and complexity of the Governess, her non-stop role, and “He” because of his chameleon abilities to make several small roles come alive. This was an adaptation that seemed to have the right understanding of how time works. Performed without intermission, it was riveting. Wittenberg, a play by David Davalos, was even better. A kind of wild, obscene talk between God (Luther) and the Devil (Faustus) was played to the very nines, especially by James Barry as Faustus. This actor had a manic energy that left you on the edge of your seat waiting. He put on a miniature rock concert (well-sung and played), he hopped and jumped all over the place, his voice was under complete control, he was a virtuoso spitfire. Perhaps the harder task though was given to Kent Burnham as Luther, who was a kind of religious straight man. This was so well played I found myself buying into the case he made, even though the script seemed weighed against him. There was nothing about his performance that seemed like a functional event. You sympathized. Joel Ripka as the young Hamlet caught in the middle, and Aubrey Saverino as the Female in residence– prostitute, Helen of Troy, and yes, the Virgin Mary, did their complicated tasks on stage superbly. This theatre company which plays in the Chester Town Hall is the best-kept secret in Berkshire County. No acting I have seen on any stage this summer was better than what I saw in Chester, and very little of it was as good. You should go there.
At the Williamstown Theatre Festival John Doyle’s collection of Rogers and Hart songs Ten Cents a Dance is not what it seems. At its start, its protagonists descend a gyre into a world of dark magic, where anybody can play anything, and where nothing is ever single in its meaning. The singing itself is multiple. Only in the protracted silences do we have a hint of truth. More than once I thought of the famous gaze in Tristan. All the other action is slippery. No sooner does the clear-voiced Donna McKechnie sing, than three other chimerical voices are compelled to join her. This can and often does seem forced. Still, it did not erase the sweetness of the good old numbers. When we were given a bellicose version of “My Funny Valentine” I heard the tender center of the song even more clearly. Maybe love needs a little distance. But is it theatrical? There was a simple narrative in this show which really was just something to hang it on. The surface events seemed to appeal; each of the singers could play several instruments decently, but not too often. Each of the singers sang adequately. Ms. McKechnie sang well.
So…. there was strife between the old stuff and the concept. One had to exercise faith. Some of the greatest productions are essentially a trial, an impediment with which the text and the actors must contend. These old songs are easy on the ear. Some of them fought against the production gently; some conquered with ease. I was supposed to leave thinking, but it was sweet feelings I was having as I left. Maybe this was the whole point. The production resisted, but the songs won.