In considering how to approach this review of Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams, directed by Omar Sangare, Professor of Theatre, I came to the conclusion that it was imperative to concentrate not only on the title of the production, which seems neutral enough at first glance, but how it was described in the official announcement. As a co-production of the Williams Theatre Department and “Sondheim@90@Williams,” to honor the 90th birthday of Stephen Sondheim as an illustrious member of Williams Class of 1950[1. for which the Williams Music Department also organized a day-and-a-half symposium about the composer and his work], Our Time was presented “in celebration” of this birthday. That final phrase might lead us to expect a revue of Mr. Sondheim’s most-loved tunes with a new, student-generated book encasing them, but Our Time was nothing of the sort.
Stephen Sondheim turns 90 today. His alma mater, Williams College, chose to honor her renowned alumnus with a musical production entitled Our Time, a Collage of Records from Williams, which brings life at the college between 1946-1950 (when Sondheim was a student there) back to life. This compilation of stories, devised Ilya Khodosh, ’08, and Omar Sangare, has been chosen by current students; who, by research, selected stories to share from the stage. At the end of the show, there is also a story delivered by a video message by Stephen Sondheim, himself.
Only two of the five scheduled performances took place before the spread of the Corona virus necessitated the cancellation of further performances. Happily, they were recorded on video, and Williams can now honor its son and audiences can enjoy this musical reminiscence.
As I return to the Bard Music Festival year after year, I notice that the spaces of Olin Hall and the Fisher Center, become more crowded and sold-out notices appear ever more frequently. I also notice that I’ve seen a good many of the attendees before. There is certainly a minority who are passionately interested in one composer or his historical and cultural context and not in the others, but I am confident in saying that the core of the Bard audience consists of recidivists. Lately the choice of focal composers has shifted from the undisputed pantheon to composers who are interesting because of their cultural position in their own time. Saint-Saëns, Chávez, and Rimsky Korsakov fall into this category. The audience keeps on growing. It’s obvious that we share a broad interest in western art music, but the way in which the individual composers are presented is exploratory, and, given the presence of musicians and musicologists, bound to take a controversial course. I always leave not only knowing something I didn’t know before, but with a profound new insight, and, most important of all, questions to mull over during the months that separate us from the next Bard Festival.
With the extraordinarily high standards of conservatory graduates today, performances of Wagner’s music dramas have fled beyond the precinct of the very largest opera houses, and we may well forget how difficult it was only a couple of generations ago to cast and stage Tristan und Isolde at, say, the Metropolitan Opera, which once had to cast one Tristan per act, when the billed tenor was indisposed, and the two available replacements were also under the weather. Already by then the aging devotees of Flagstad and Melchior grumbled about just how far their standards would have to sink, before they stopped going to hear Wagner in New York. I still hear that today from long-time Wagnerians.
Opera has been a significant presence at Tanglewood since the 1940s, whether in concert performances at the Koussevitzky Music Shed or fully-staged in the Theater—among the first structures to be built at Tanglewood, but disused since the Levine years—and I’ll confess a certain fondness for it, in spite of its spartan grimness, uncomfortable seats, and less-than-ideal acoustics. There, TMC Vocal Fellows and the TMC Orchestra could flex their muscles with sets and costumes, often producing superb results, above all in Mozart. The high points of opera at Tanglewood include performances of rarities under Leinsdorf and Ozawa, and I should mention Dutoit’s superb performance of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust in the Shed, as well as Szymanowski’s great Król Roger in Symphony Hall. Verdi’s Don Carlo and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, both with the TMC Orchestra were also outstanding events at Tanglewood.
This is, I think, the third alert of this sort I have sent out in my thirteen years of arts journalism. I have just come from one of the most extraordinary evenings I have experienced in many years of opera, and there is only one more chance to attend it, Sunday morning, August 26th, at 10 am at the Latchis Theater, 48 Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont. Even if you have something important scheduled, change it and be there!
For some time now, there has been a tendency for directors and actors of Hamlet to treat the protagonist’s mother and uncle/stepfather with more tolerance than in the moralistic past. Shakespeare doesn’t oblige us to view them as outright villains or to see them—or the deceased King of Denmark—from Hamlet’s eyes, but that’s what has usually happened. In the late 1990s John Updike took this about as far as it can sensibly go in his novel, Gertrude and Claudius,
My own Tanglewood season began with this solid program in Seiji Ozawa Hall: a neglected program piece by an early 20th century composer, once more famous than he is today because of two isolated tone poems, the premiere of a substantial new work by a prominent former TMC Fellow, and a fresh look at an over-familiar symphony—the warhorse of all warhorses, some might say—by one of the canonical 19th century composers.