Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration in the Music Shed, a Review

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All of the performers at the Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Concert take a bow after the finale. Photo Hilary Scott.
All of the performers at the Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Concert take a bow after the finale. Photo Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Boston Pops Orchestra
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra

John Williams, Keith Lockhart, and Andris Nelsons, conductors

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin, pianos
James Taylor, vocalist

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

Seiji Ozawa was presented the first ever Tanglewood medal by John Williams and Yo Yo Ma in absentia at the 75 Anniversary Celebration of Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.
Seiji Ozawa was presented the first ever Tanglewood medal by John Williams and Yo Yo Ma in absentia at the 75 Anniversary Celebration of Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

CoplandFanfare for the Common Man – Boston Pops Orchestra brass/Keith Lockhart
Bernstein – Three Dance Episodes from On the Town – Boston Pops Orchestra/Lockhart
Selections from the Great American Songbook, (arr. Gil Goldstein) – (James Taylor/Boston Pops Orchestra/John Williams)
           Arlen & Harburg – “Over the Rainbow”
           Rodgers & Hammerstein – “Shall We Dance?”
           Kern & Hammerstein – “Ol’ Man River”
Haydn – Piano Concerto in D, 2nd and 3rd movements – Emanuel Ax/Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra/Stefan Asbury
Tchaikovsky – Andante cantabile, for cello and strings – Yo-Yo Ma/TMCO
SarasateCarmen Fantasy, for violin and orchestra – Anne-Sophie Mutter/TMCO/Andris Nelsons
RavelLa Valse, Choreographic poem – Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
First-ever Tanglewood Medal presented by John Williams to Seiji Ozawa in absentia; Yo-Yo Ma to read a response from Mr. Ozawa from the stage at approximately 10:30 pm
Beethoven – Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80 – Peter Serkin/David Zinman/BSO

In this special version of the popular annual “Tanglewood on Parade” concert, the 75th anniversary of the festival as we know it (more or less) was duly celebrated. On August 5, 1937, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Beethoven concert under Music Director Serge Koussevitzky. (I have already mentioned this in my review of the commemorative reprise of the same program on July 6.) This was the first concert of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, as it was then known, both with the Boston Symphony and on the same property, Tanglewood, which has been the home of the orchestra ever since. (For a brief history of Tanglewood, click here.) The program book for the concert, reproduced in the anniversary program booklets, bills the season as the fourth: the Boston Symphony played on a different property close by in 1936, and the Festival actually began on August 25, 1934 with a concert played by 65 members of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Henry Hadley on a farm in Interlaken. When Koussevitzky and the BSO were invited to replace them, the maestro saw a marvelous opportunity either to realize a project he had conceived in Russia for a grand festival of all the arts, or at least to give the Boston Symphony exposure among the wealthy New Yorkers who summered in the Berkshires, not to mention the financial elite of Chicago and Cleveland, who also had “cottages” in the Berkshires. Above all, the festival was a way to keep the orchestra musicians working throughout the year. (At this time many of the musicians came from Europe, and the first thing they did when the season was over was to get on a boat for home. Often they decided to stay there.) These early years involved a handful of orchestral concerts. The two intense months of opera, chamber music, contemporary music, musical formation, and, of course, orchestral music evolved over the next decade, with 1942-45 passed over because of the war. The purpose of the first sponsors was always to create a music festival that would rival the great festivals of Europe. Koussevitzky’s ambitions surpassed ever theirs, eventually creating the model for the American classical music festival, with its combination of high-minded education and “music under the stars” for a broad audience.

It is impossible to take Tanglewood for granted, if one has attended for a few years and knows a bit about its history. With each year, while the structure remains more or less the same, one appreciates more and more just how rich Tanglewood’s offerings are and what an important mark the festival has left on American musical life. Certain characteristic events and figures sketch it out: the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes, which had been commissioned by Koussevitzky, the ongoing work of Aaron Copland and others, the Juilliard Quartets early cycles of Bartók’s quartets as well as their own ongoing work for students and the public — to name only a few examples. Central for most audience members are the orchestral concerts, not only the Boston Symphony’s in the Music Shed, but the orchestra composed of the young TMC fellows, which many regulars even prefer for unspoilt enthusiasm in addition to its amazing level of musicianship.

The Boston Symphony has had its ups and downs over the years. The impressive quality we have enjoyed under James Levine’s tenure and beyond can’t erase memories of the days of Leinsdorf and Ozawa, when BSO concerts at Tanglewood, which can’t have the same rehearsal time as the Symphony Hall concerts, were as often as not a rough and ready affair. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t great, unforgettable performances at Tanglewood under all the music directors and the guest conductors of the time. To celebrate the 75th Anniversary, the Boston Symphony is offering streams of 75 past Tanglewood performances. (Click here to access them.)  A new one is posted every day and remains free of charge for twenty-four hours. After that they can be purchased for a moderate charge. The selection was made by a committee of Symphony staff and critics who have had many years with the orchestra and Tanglewood. Not everyone will agree on all the choices, but they are in excellent sound for their respective dates, consistently enlightening, and the best reminder of all, apart from the current season, that there really is something to celebrate here. I’ll discuss the historical performances in another article. Meanwhile, don’t miss any of the streaming performances.

The Anniversary Gala Concert itself was a window on some of the many sides of Tanglewood, ranging from easy listening to core repertoire and beyond. Typically, most of the performances were outstanding and some were even better than that, reaching up to high levels of the art. Three orchestras played in the Shed: the Boston Pops, the TMC Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony.

Keith Lockhart began the proceedings leading the brass of the Boston Pops in Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. This is an occasion to remember not anyone associated with Tanglewood or the Boston Symphony, but the wonderful and strange British conductor Eugene Goossens, then Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony, who commissioned the work in 1942 for a series of fanfares intended to support the U.S. war effort. Goossens planned to premiere it at tax time, with Copland’s hearty approval. He said that he was “all for honoring the common man at income tax time” Today, especially in Berkshire County, the second bluest county in the nation after Suffolk (Boston), people are still happy to hear the fanfare, which was played in a broad, grand way by the Pops.

This was followed by music by Leonard Bernstein, a friend/protégé of both Copland and Koussevitzky, who was closely associated with Tanglewood as a conductor, soloist, and teacher throughout his career, his Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. It’s actually been many years since I’ve heard the Pops. They really played very well, softening the edges and the rhythms with their characteristic elegance as they did in Fiedler’s time. Bernstein would have conducted the dances with a lot more edge and fire, but that’s another kind of music-making. This classic Pops interpretation was a pleasure in itself.

After that, James Taylor did his thing with three show tunes, much to the delight of many in the audience. Former Pops Music Director John Williams conducted, producing a large-scale backup from his massive forces. The exit of the Boston Pops and the seating of the TMC orchestra was cleverly masked by a film which surveyed the history of the Festival.

The beginning of the next work was rather jarring. It was Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, but with the first movement omitted. Even though I knew it was coming, it felt a bit strange to enter with the slow movement, and the omission became all the more irritating as I took in what a very beautiful performance it was. The admirable Stefan Asbury produced an transparent, glowing sound from the TMC Orchestra, while Emanuel Ax, who was totally focused on Haydn’s music, phrased flexibly, giving the music plenty of room to expand and to breathe. Ax’s beauty of tone is legendary, and so is his restraint. Both of these served Haydn nobly, leading to a modern performance with only a delicate breeze of the Romantic in the distance. This was one — unfortunately truncated — vision of Tanglewood at its best.

Yo Yo Ma with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Photo Hilary Scott.
Yo Yo Ma with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Photo Hilary Scott.

Two more of Tanglewood’s most distinguished regulars followed, with Yo-Yo Ma playing Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile for cello and strings. The Fellows’ playing, directed by Ma himself, was sympathetic, closely following every nuance of his songful playing. Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of our great violinists, was joined by Andris Nelsons, whose much-anticipated and much-postponed debut concert with the Boston Symphony followed the next day. (We can’t count his stand-in performance of the Mahler Ninth at Carnegie Hall last spring, when James Levine had to cancel.) She played Sarasate’s tedious Carmen Fantasy with terrific technique and her usual complete musicianship. Even the likes of Nelsons and the TMC Fellows could not aerate Sarasate’s muddy orchestral textures. I couldn’t help feeling that Ms. Mutter has too much heart and intellect for this kind of music. It takes a steely type like Jascha Heifetz to hide his best qualities in a drawer and simply play Bizet’s tunes and Sarasate’s ornaments as they pass by like downtown traffic. Seriously…Taffanel’s Fantasy after Weber’s Der Freischütz for flute is a work of genius in comparison, showing what a virtuoso/arranger could actually achieve with an imaginative synthesis of an opera.

After the break Andris Nelsons returned with the BSO in an energetically shaped, but finely nuanced performance of Ravel’s La Valse. The orchestral color he produced from the BSO was unique, sunny, but ever so subtly cool, with plenty of air around the woodwinds and brass — a refreshing sound. This was even more striking in his Stravinsky-Brahms concert the next day. Even in this brief showpiece one could hear and see the orchestra’s enthusiasm for Mr. Nelsons, whose intense, but finely-honed performances have earned him a reputation as one of the best already by his early thirties. (see my review of his Lohengrin at Bayreuth) Throughout the work, Nelson’s cherished each phrase, often leaning over to make close contact with an individual section of the orchestra. He uses his eyes most expressively, along with the baton, which can shift from a beat of perfect steadiness to eloquent sound sculpting in a split second. The newcomer seemed entirely at home in creating music on the highest level, even in the midst of this celebratory event. So often at gala events, even the best musicians can fall prey to going through the motions and making caricatures of themselves. That was not allowed to happen at this event, and nothing could speak more convincingly for the values of Tanglewood and the commitment with which they are carried on today.

As impressive as Mr. Nelsons’ performance was, the best came last. Peter Serkin played Beethoven’s Fantasia in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 80, with David Zinman conducting. Mr. Zinman’s approach to Beethoven has gained much interest and respect, recently through an ambitious traversal of six of the symphonies with the New York Philharmonic in historically-informed performances combined with modern works. Peter Serkin has grown up with the Choral Fantasy, which his father Rudolf played each year to conclude the Marlboro Festival. Peter’s approach to music could not be more different. Rudolf and some other pianists attempted to recreate the improvisational feeling of the Adagio movement, which opens the work — and, at the work’s premiere in 1808, Beethoven did in fact improvise. But we have the Fantasy in the form Beethoven set down on paper and published. Peter Serkin takes it as a composition and explores it. Taking slow, flexible tempi, Serkin investigated every phrase and harmony, producing sonic marvels at every turn. Even though I’ve heard the work — a favorite of mine — quite a few times, it was full of surprises in his hands. The subtle pianissimo textures, the dissonant chords, the improvisatory melodic lines were all thought out and re-created afresh here. He could not have had a more sympathetic accompanist than Mr. Zinman, which followed every ritard and every nuanced phrase with loving attention, producing a glowing, balanced sound from the orchestra — basically a light, blended texture, but always solidly grounded and never thin. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and solo quartet drawn from their ranks, prepared by their director, John Oliver, sang at their magnificent best. The only part that passed awkwardly was the first line of the soloists (the beginning of the third movement, Allegretto ma non troppo, quasi Andante con moto), which they had to sing at an extremely slow tempo, too slowly to avoid a gap between their repeated notes, which are marked staccato. This gave the phrase a schoolmarmish quality, which is mildly comical in view of the words: Schmeichelnd hold und lieblich klingen / unseres Lebens Harmonien (“Seductively fair and lovely sound the harmonies of our life”). Perhaps something almost whispered, tending toward Sprechstimme, might be the solution to that small problem.

Peter Serkin’s original way with the work borders on eccentricity, but is is all the more appealing for that. Peter Serkin took constant risks, but he managed them all brilliantly and succeeded in his endeavor. The 75th Anniversary Gala Concert came to a close with a fresh interpretation of a daring, not very often played work by one of the greatest composers, one which pointed the way to one of his greatest works, the Ninth Symphony, which, as everyone knows, we will hear in a few weeks, under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. It was deeply gratifying to hear the celebration end with real substance, and in that, I think, Tanglewood has sent us the right message.

Koussevitzky at Seranak. Photograph by William Whitaker, courtesy BSO Archives.
Koussevitzky at Seranak. Photograph by William Whitaker, courtesy BSO Archives.

2 thoughts on “Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration in the Music Shed, a Review

  1. Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.
    Where may I find a personnel list of this year’s orchestra (2012)?

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