Traditionally, the BSO’s Tanglewood season concludes with a performance Beethoven’s Ninth, an overplayed sound-track triggering optimistic images of brotherhood and the profound goodness of the human heart. The mere fact that this became a ritual has drained it of musical significance—which has been replaced by its function as an ambiguous signifier; it has been pulled out to celebrate great occasions, cultural and political movements of all stripes, including by the Nazis.
Ligeti’s Trio for horn, violin, and piano is subtitled “Hommage à Brahms” since it was commissioned, in 1982, as a companion piece to Brahms’ trio for the same instruments. This is a rare instrumental combination owing to radical disparities in color, volume, and methods of tone production that challenge the composer to balance and blend their sounds. It was probably this quality that acted as one of the inspirations for this piece, which marked a turning point in the career of this composer. Ligeti does not consciously emulate Brahms in this work; if anyone, it is Beethoven who serves as a distant presence.
Alan Feinberg, curator of the House Blend concert series at PS 21 in Chatham, has interesting ideas about how to bring together seemingly disparate repertory to provoke new perspectives. My second reaction to the unusual programming of the second concert was “what do these pieces have to do with each other?” (My first reaction was “Cool: I get to hear Biber, Wolpe, and Nancarrow, all in the same program?”) It makes you think as you listen, which is not a bad thing if what you are thinking about is the music you are (carefully) listening to; and the thoughts accumulate as you listen. My thought about the Biber Passacaglia for solo violin, composed in 1676 and a powerful precursor to Bach’s solo violin music, was this: Biber makes the violin sound like several voices singing in counterpoint. This is not something the violin normally does, but after Biber, it became conceivable.
Herbert Blomstedt is that rarity: a modest maestro. His most conspicuous distinction is his obvious love of music and music- making. That love is so substantial and sustaining that it has kept him on the podium operating at full throttle into the eighth decade of his career (and the tenth of his life). It is so intense that he conducts the entire standard repertory from memory and apparently does not need a baton; his formidable equipment consists of his arms and his face. These are enough for him to communicate in the most subtle and refined ways to his players, and, more importantly, to communicate his own inspiration directly to them. This is not only a general phenomenon, but one particular to every note and phrase.
The A-list contains works that are already familiar to most concertgoers either through live performances or recordings. Their presence on programs means that audiences can anticipate their experience and compare their expectations with what they actually hear, for better or worse. The B-list, however, consists of works by composers which may be familiar, but which are less often performed, and therefore may offer listeners a first-time concert experience. Such was the case with the program offered by the TMC Monday night at Tanglewood. Membership in the B-list does not imply second-rate quality; it simply means that those responsible for programming (orchestra managers, conductors, commissioning bodies) have less faith in such works to attract audiences who like to know what to expect.
Yo-Yo Ma pointed out that the trio arrangement that Beethoven made of his Symphony no. 2 allowed musical amateurs to experience this work at home in lieu of the (rare) opportunity of hearing it in a live performance. The arrangement was published many years before the orchestral original was performed outside of Vienna. It was meant to be played and heard in a domestic space in which scale of its gestures would present themselves in the correct proportions, filling the salon with what, for its time, was its larger-than-life energy and personality.
It seemed that concert life had returned to normal, even though the audience was clumped into socially distanced groups separated by empty seats and the intermission was replaced by a short pause. The crowd before and after the music milled about without much presence of masks, and the musicians on-stage sat in their normal configuration. Even the lawn looked well-occupied, despite the steady drizzle, with groups on blankets sitting under umbrellas. The concert began without much ado, Andris Nelsons and the musicians launching enthusiastically into Carlos Simon’s brief and rousing opener, “Fate Now Conquers,” bringing the chatter and bustle of the audience to a halt.
Matt Haimovitz is a one-man contemporary music impresario, as well as a virtuosic and versatile cellist. Unlike older-school virtuosos, he is thoroughly attuned to current trends in both composition and historical performance practice, as attested to by his Zoom webinar master-classes during this past strange year. The pandemic has not put a damper on his musical activities; if anything, it has had the opposite effect. Monday night’s concert included a demonstration of some of the outcomes of his on-going activism on behalf of new music.