A Musical Weekend at Williams, I: Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, Ronald Feldman, conductor

Williams has traditionally placed a high value on the arts without exactly pursuing the disciplines to the level of more specialized institutions, like Bard or Oberlin, except perhaps in the visual arts. The ‘62 Center has changed that in respect to theater, and the new facilities, as well as the distinguished faculty who have been hired to go with it, like Omar Sangare, the brilliant Polish playwright, poet, and actor, have attracted the sort of students who might otherwise have chosen Yale or Tisch. The Williams community, Berkshire residents, and whoever decides to make the trip, can expect great things in the future. Music, while very much a Cinderella in terms of physical plant, considering the problematic acoustics of Brooks-Rogers and Chapin Hall, is nonetheless richly endowed with talent of the first order, and many of these assets were much in evidence this past weekend in departmental chairman David Kechley (recently awarded an ASCAPlus Award as well as an Aaron Copland Award composer residency from Copland House), cellist-conductor Ronald Feldman, and, on Sunday, David Porter, Harry C. Payne Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts, who is as much a classicist as a musician.

A Musical Weekend at Williams, II: David Porter plays Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata

Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata is without a doubt one of the great monuments of American music. It is not heard often, because it is difficult for both the pianist and his audience, and perhaps that is a good thing. It would be a pity if, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it were played too often in unworthy performances. It embodies the highest principles of American thought and American music, and a performance of it should remain a special occasion, as if it were a secular Missa Solemnis.

Alfred Brendel’s Farewell Recital in Boston, Symphony Hall, Boston: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert

For his Boston farewell program, Alfred Brendel chose a selective cross-section of the repertoire he has cultivated through much of his career, and a fascinating selection it was, both in terms of Mr. Brendel’s taste and the inter-relationships between these mostly classical composers. [Click here for a review of his New York farewell with James Levine and the Met Orchestra.] There was no Schoenberg, no Schumann, and Liszt only as an encore. One felt that he had concentrated on the very marrow of his repertory. On the other hand, it came as a powerful discovery to experience the various forms—the overall shapes—of these four works within the compass of a single concert. Brendel has always been especially strong in comprehending and delineating classical structure and form, and now, at the very end of his public career, he appears to have distilled it to the utmost. Haydn’s rich F minor variations, which unfold over a melancholy walking figure in the bass, preceded the musically unusual, but traditionally constructed Mozart sonata, which concludes with an introspective rondo, also set at an ambling pace, cobbled from an earlier independent work. After this, Beethoven’s concentrated Sonata quasi una Fantasia, seemed like a revolutionary outburst, although all Beethoven actually did was to pare his movement-structures down to the point where they could function in support of an improvisatory style. After the break these three strikingly different, but equally terse classical works were followed by Schubert’s Romantic expansion of classical form to encompass a wealth of drawn-out melodies, harmonic invention, and subtle changes of mood.

Zemlinsky’s Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg at Bard Summerscape 2007

I find myself torn between the temptation to write at length about these fascinating stage works by Zemlinsky and my responsibility to you, our readers, to let you know about this absolutely wonderful evening at the opera, so that you can grab some tickets before they all disappear. Yes, this will have to be short, and it cannot do justice to these brilliant operas or the amazing work all of those involved have put into these splendid productions. The experience was both profound and immensely entertaining.

Tanglewood Festival Retrospective 2007

I’ve already said much more than I ever wanted to about the state of the Tanglewood Festival and the pointless discussion stirred up by a few articles and editorials in the Berkshire Eagle—both in Berkshire Fine Arts and our current Commentary. Since the festival faces no real crisis either in finances or attendance, what matters is the music. This is James Levine’s fourth season as music director of the Boston Symphony. The various difficulties arising from his intense working methods, his health, and, I believe, the evolution of his own musicianship are now in the past. The orchestra and Tanglewood now form a larger part of his commitments. The orchestra now play better than they have in years, consistently on a very high level for Mr. Levine and for guest conductors as well. He conducted more BSO concerts than in previous summers, and he is thoroughly involved with the Tanglewood Music Center. Not every one of Levine’s interpretations may strike every listener as equally compelling, but I know of no one who shows such a passion for music in everything he does. His enthusiasm and high standards have made a most definite impression on Tanglewood, and now one can go there in the expectation of hearing interesting, if largely conservative programs played by the Boston Symphony at the top of their form, not to mention the superb TMC Orchestra and Opera Fellows, soloists and other extras which are making an appearance, most notably the series of world-class early music and historical instrument groups.

Leon Botstein and the ASO with Bard Conservatory Students Triumph in Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Ibert, and Dvorak at Bard’s Fisher Center

It seems particularly felicitous that this first concert review in The Berkshire Review for the Arts celebrates the very fine performances of two young musicians, who are not far from the very beginning of their careers. Pianist Shun-Yang Lee from Taipei, Taiwan, is a student of Melvin Chen and Peter Serkin at the Bard Conservatory of Music, and Korean baritone Yohan Yi is also a Bard Conservatory student. Lee performed this weekend as winner of the Second Annual Bard Conservatory Concerto Competition, and Yi recently performed at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in the Golijov/Upshaw Young Artists concert. This was a great evening for seasoned musicians as well. Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a thoroughly Brahmsian performance of the Academic Festival Overture and a truly revelatory reading of Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World.”

The Tokyo Quartet

The Tokyo Quartet play Beethoven Op. 95 and Schubert’s Octet at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, July 13, 2007

Tradition has been lurking under every stone this summer, between local controversies about change at Tanglewood and the host of anniversaries which are being celebrated, beginning with the 60th of the Juilliard Quartet, the historic 59th of the Bartók Quartets at Tanglewood, Aston Magna’s 35th, and now the 30th anniversary of the renowned Tokyo Quartet’s residence at Norfolk Chamber Music Festival and the Yale Summer School of Music. When they were officially founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music under the tutelage of the members of the Juilliard String Quartet, the world of the string quartet seemed to be thinning out, in spite of the appearance of the Guarneri in 1965, and the youthful, mop-headed string players from the Toho School of Music in Tokyo were most welcome. Cultivating a lean tone and an incisive, energetic style, they seemed the antithesis of the aging Budapest Quartet, which still actively represented the middle European Menschlichkeit of the early twentieth century.

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