The recent biennial weeklong Boston Early Music Festival (June 14-21) drew unusual attention for presenting full stagings of all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas (Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, The Coronation of Poppea) plus the Vespers of 1610. This in addition to the Festival’s usual 9 a.m. to midnight concerts of a great variety of music from the Middle Ages to Bach, featuring noted performers from all over the world. Enthusiasm ran high all week and audiences were large, especially for the Monteverdi events.
Lucking into one of the first few nice days of a late spring, I attended the annual Glimmerglass Festival kickoff, hosted at Midwood, the secluded Germantown home of philanthropist Joan K. Davidson. This beautiful Sunday afternoon offered the enticements of the summer opera fare in Cooperstown along with hors d’oeuvres and wine. Francesca Zambello, the transformational Artistic & General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, invited several young artists, veteran performers, and composers to further the cause.
The perfect word to describe Andris Nelsons’ conducting is “exciting.” He elicits spectacular playing from the Boston Symphony and knows how to mold the sound of the orchestra to his taste. The strings now sound rich, deep, and solid rather than airy, transparent and elegant, as was their traditional, French–flavored style. This works well in a German-Russian program; I am curious to hear what they (Nelsons and the orchestra) will do with canonical French material such as the orchestral works of Ravel.
Andris Nelsons has garnered a lot of attention during his first season as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—much coverage in the local and even national press; receptions for the public and an exhibition with a talking hologram at Symphony Hall; placards on buses around Boston and in the subway. He threw out a ball for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The BSO organization wants him talked about by the man and woman on the street—especially the younger set. It remains to be seen whether a new younger audience will be drawn to the BSO. Eventually, it’s the music that will matter, not publicity.
My leading thought goes against much of what the Bard Music Festival and my own values, for that matter, stand for. And just read Keith Francis’ provocative series, The Great Composers?, the latest installment of which has just been published. I’ve missed only one Bard Festival since 2006, and I’ve heard great music by Elgar, Prokofiev, and Sibelius. And, well, Saint-Saëns was too gifted to be great, and that really didn’t interest him in any case. Of the composers included in the festival, only Wagner and Stravinsky turn up on common lists of the greatest—not that those stupid lists do anything but harm. Still, during the two weekends devoted to Franz Schubert I felt I was living with the gods, and the lingering impression of those weekends swelled accordingly.
How do we access the past? The viewer of contemporary art is invariably ensconced in, if not assaulted by, the strategies of artist, gallerist, and critic setting a work in terms of the present. The viewer, even the neophyte, invariably is attuned to the content of the discourse—racial memories of South Africa, female experience in the United States, sexual identity, response to AIDs, poverty, or age, in term that resonate with lived, personal experience. How does an exhibitor or critic bridge the cultural gap that so actively stands between our present and our past, especially with artists outside of the mainstream?