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.
The Aston Magna concert of July 27 in Saint James Place in Great Barrington featuring music of Johann Pachelbel, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and Heitor Villa Lobos was a feast of beauty. The variety of works by these composers gave the ensemble and featured soloists opportunities to display their virtuosity and their admirable expressiveness. Aldo Abreu delighted the audience with brilliant skill in Vivaldi’s Concert for Sopranino Recorder in A minor. He and Christopher Krueger, also on recorder, were then featured in a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, along with violinist Edson Scheid who commanded his solo part with tremendous skill and playfulness.
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.
A graph showing the reputation of Sibelius’s symphonies in the 20th century would look like a fever chart. When he wrote his first symphony at the very end of the 19th century, the composer was still struggling for recognition, and it took another decade for his work to receive international attention. Once that happened, his reputation rose to that of a composer whose music held the greatest interest for orchestras and audiences during a period when the early modernists were generating more polarized responses.
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!
Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful.
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.
As complex as they are on the page, Ives’s violin sonatas need powerfully imaginative interpretations to come fully alive, ones finely attuned to the composer’s unique sensibility, background, and musical idiom, ready to embody a spirit of exploration, experimentation, and even improvisation. Performances can err on the side of a traditional, European (i.e. Brahmsian) approach, such as the recording by Rafael Druian and John Simms, made in the ‘50’s, a streamlined modernist approach e.g. Paul Zukovsky and Gilbert Kalish, from the ‘60’s, a showy, virtuosic approach, like that of Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa from 2011; or they can find a balance among these that incorporates American vernacular fiddling traditions, like Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon from 1989. All of this is required if these works are to cohere and succeed in communicating their emotional contents to an audience.