It was James Levine’s many cancelations that most directly led to his (perhaps forced) resignation as the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director in the spring of 2011. But Levine has no monopoly on health problems and accidents. The glow of the two superlative concerts I attended at Tanglewood (July 19 and 20) was clouded over by the startling announcement that Levine’s young and healthy replacement, 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, was unable to conduct the July 27 Verdi Requiem, his first scheduled concert since his appointment, because he had suffered a “severe concussion” after being “struck in the head by a door that unexpectedly swung open at his residence in Bayreuth, Germany.” Nelsons came to the attention of the BSO when he filled in for Levine at short notice, leading the Mahler Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. But last year, Nelsons cancelled his Boston debut at Symphony Hall because his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, was having the couple’s first baby.
Pairing Britten (b. 1913) with Shostakovich (b. 1906) makes for good programming with lots of parallels and contrasts. Both composers were ‘conservatives’ who, by the 1950’s, stood alone at the pinnacle of the musical life of their respective countries. Both wrote accessible tonal music for most of their careers but had fruitful late-life ventures with dodecaphonic techniques (and for Britten, aleatoric ones as well). They could both be very dour and serious or light-hearted and entertaining (usually with a dose of irony). They both drew powerful stylistic inspiration from their own language and literature. And both led marginalized existences within their own cultures, Britten owing to pacifism and homosexuality, Shostakovich owing to a precarious position vis-à-vis official Soviet cultural demands, resulting in a kind of double gamesmanship in which his music appeared to satisfy official requirements superficially while remaining ambiguous regarding its added possible ‘meaning’ as protest. Britten risked much when he included the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen in his “War Requiem” since at the time of its premier, 1961, such a position was rarely taken in public. This was all to change with the Vietnam War, but that lay years ahead. Shostakovich seems to have protected himself by portraying historical events that would be politically approved, such as “The Year 1905” for the Eleventh Symphony which purports to depict the massacre of peaceful protestors by the military at the Tsar’s Winter Palace of that year.1 There is a clear possibility, however, that he was also inspired by more contemporary parallel events such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in which Soviet Russia played the role of the oppressor (cf. note 3). Appreciation of this layer of meaning also lay years ahead, especially in his mother country.
I stand in awe of the combination of skills needed to perform the American musical well. While a voice which is less than perfect may be usable, even good, the acting must be convincing, and the dancing cannot in any way seem labored or “almost there.” In the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Oklahoma there was a textbook example of how to do this in the person of Chasten Harmon who played Ado Annie. This young woman convinced me that she sang because she had to sing, and she danced because she had to dance, and all of this flowed along as a single narrative, without bumping. It justified the form and showed that the modes work together to make a kind of super language which can go off in any direction at any time.
Well do I remember my first few days as a Tanglewood Fellow. The pace of it. Already in the first concert there were brilliant things from the 2013 Tanglewood Music Center. Gabriel Campos Zamora’s clarinet playing in Kodály’s Dances of Galánta was breath-taking. He commanded the time; he commanded the space. I can only call Maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting of the Beethoven 5th Symphony with the Fellows a blessed occasion.
Wagner, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Boito, Janáček, Schoenberg, Berg, and Tippett and Debussy all composed operas to their own libretti (or adaptations of spoken dramas). Now add the name of Harbison. While waiting for permission to compose an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Harbison began composing anyway. By the time it was appropriate to look for a librettist, too much music had already been written and Harbison took hold on that function himself. The result reflects the composer’s concept of the drama in its broad outlines (the choice of scenes, pacing of the story) and its minute details (the word-by-word unfolding, the rhythms and inflections of each character). Although Harbison had an early history as a poet, the libretto struck me as having a prose-like quality, sometimes quoting the novel verbatim and often sounding like it. The conversational tone brings verisimilitude but sometimes also a certain flatness that may illustrate the directionlessness of the characters’ existence, but can seem oddly out of place in an opera.
Every summer, in the course of Bard College’s Summerscape, the expansive net of entertainment, education, and enlightenment Leon Botstein and his cohorts cast about the Bard Music Festival, we get an opportunity to enjoy a rare opera, which has either fallen out of, or never entered, the basic repertory of the art form—an opera you will never see at the Met. In many cases the reasons these works disappeared is either straightforward or practical: tastes change, or the management of mainstream opera houses ceased to find it workable to engage a cast of six or eight lead singers when the most popular operas required only two. In other cases the reasons are mysterious, complex, or otherwise fascinating.