This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood had a distinguished guest director-curator, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is as admired for his performances of Elliott Carter as for his refined and powerful Debussy and Bach. He had something to convey to his audience, too. He wanted us to know the work of two living European composers important to him: the 53-year-old Italian Marco Stroppa and the 77-year-old German Helmut Lachenmann, figures little known in this country, although Stroppa was a student at MIT in the 1980s and in 2008 Lachenmann was a visiting professor of music at Harvard.
The musical event I was most looking forward to all summer was the premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first and probably the most beautiful and moving of what he called his three “parables for church performance”—essentially conductorless one-act chamber operas on spiritual themes. William Plomer’s libretto takes Juro Motomasa’s 15th-century Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), Christianizes it, and transfers the location to England’s East Anglian Fenland (the other two church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, are more directly biblical). The new production would be paired with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (1989), his unforgettable dance version of Henry Purcell’s operatic masterpiece choreographed the year of its tricentennial. And Britten loved Purcell.
Few musicals head to Broadway with the pedigree and promise of The Bridges of Madison County: Music by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, which premiered at Lincoln Center Theatre), book by Marsha Norman (Tony winner for ‘night Mother and The Secret Garden), and directed by Bartlett Sher (South Pacific and many Metropolitan Opera productions). The show, based on a controversial best-seller of the same name by Robert James Waller, is currently having its pre-Broadway developmental performances through August 18 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It is a privilege to be in attendance at the birth of this musical. Many aspects of the show are going brilliantly. But many need further work.
The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease.
The string quartet medium and the classical style are almost synonymous. They fit each other so perfectly that they appear to be two sides of the same coin, complementary aspects of the same musical impulse. At least that is the impression one gets from the core literature of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the composers discussed in Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style” (one of the best books about music of any kind — a classic in itself). The two sides of the coin, however, started to pull apart in interesting ways after Schubert. By the later nineteenth century when Brahms and Tchaikovsky were writing their quartets, there were a number of ways that music could be matched to the quartet medium. The idea that a quartet is no longer simply a conversation among four players takes hold. Mahler thought that Beethoven’s late quartets are too large in their gestures for just four players; he transcribed several for string orchestra and programmed them on concerts which he conducted.1 Mahler’s view of the quartet as a miniature orchestral work may have been influenced by romantic quartets that appear to be bursting at the seams, straining against the limitations of a mere four instruments. For the romantics, emotional intensity could equate with thick, full textures and grandiose emotions. Chamber music for more than four instruments was popular throughout the century; both Brahms and Tchaikovsky made distinguished contributions to the literature of the string sextet.
My colleagues, Lloyd Schwartz and Larry Wallach, have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music’s performance of John Harbison’s third opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won’t attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison’s) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique.