In our 21st century barrage of high-profile concerts at major venues, streaming services, CDs, and now, with the COVID-19 Pandemic, Zoom, it takes some small effort to recover the occasional origins of the works we hear regularly as part of our diet of classical music. Historically the original context of the music is replaced by some other, contemporary event or circumstance deemed worthy of celebration by the organizers, whether it is a symbolic political event like the demolition of the Berlin Wall or some European Union event, the demise or commemoration of a musician or donor especially connected to the sponsoring program, or, once upon a time, Hitler’s birthday. We all know that there was a lot to celebrate in the season opener, even if Tanglewood had dispatched its most elaborate celebratory event the previous week in a July 4 event with the Boston Pops—and fireworks—usually held on the Esplanade in Boston.
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.
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.
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.
After the sparkling performance of George Gershwin’s little gem of variations on one of his most popular songs, an audience member asked her husband “Do you want to stay after intermission?” Certainly the atmosphere had been more that of a Pops concert with hearty applause after the first movement of the concerto as well as an ovation at the end; but at that moment it struck me that the ears that savored the pleasures of Gershwin might not relish the kaleidoscopic astringencies of Stravinsky. The much less enthusiastic audience reception for the ballet score affirmed this, despite a performance that capably revealed the colors and shapes of this astonishing breakthrough work.
The job of a critic has two elements: the first is to report the facts of a performance: what was played, by whom, and what the music and performance were like in objective terms, as far as possible (never fully successful); and the second is to offer some judgments about the quality of both music and performance. This second part is fraught with difficulties: judgments are necessarily subjective, and yet in order for them to be useful to the reader, they need to be justified in terms of the values upon which they are based, especially since the critic is fully aware that his/her long-held prejudices (euphemistically called convictions) are not necessarily shared by readers.
On Friday night as evening approached, a quintet of wind players from the Boston Symphony, joined by excellent pianist Jonathan Bass, set the mild summer air of Ozawa Hall in motion with an elegant program of wind music well-suited to assist listeners transition from the pleasures of a perfect day in the Berkshires to the orchestral depths of tragedy, passion, and triumph by nightfall. Mozart initiated both programs with elegant, joyful, and subtly profound works composed at the apex of his career: the piano and winds quintet, which he professed to be his favorite among works composed to that point, and the concerto, no. 22, which (along with no. 23) stands unostentatiously between better-known works on either side (nos. 20 and 21 preceding, nos. 24 and 25 following).
Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra, led by Sir Antonio Pappano, with guest soloist Martha Argerich, visited Symphony Hall on Sunday, October 22nd, performing at the rather unusual hour of 5 p.m. Going into the concert, I was overtaken by the suggestion of my title for this review. Thinking of Lorca and Hemingway, who between them immortalized the phrase “Five in the Afternoon,” in connection with bullfighting, I wondered if we concert goers were in for a strong flavor of doom, transcended through ritual and magnificence. No such thing. The concert was all beauty and vitality, though certainly with magnificence about it. This stunning event was the best orchestral concert of the fall in Boston.