Tanglewood produced many of the summer’s memorable outings, but with pieces which somehow seem easier for a big Symphony to bring across to a big audience in the summer and in the country; music, like every other living thing in New England, can be highly seasonal and very much of its own place and niche. Many of the programs drew from the theater — ballet music and concert opera especially, or from the church — and extremely fine and satisfying performances of Debussy’s Danses: sacré et profane, l’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Charles Dutoit’s of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, and one of Britten’s church parables Curlew River, to leave out many others, seem stick with me for a long time.
The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease.
Pairing Britten (b. 1913) with Shostakovich (b. 1906) makes for good programming with lots of parallels and contrasts. Both composers were ‘conservatives’ who, by the 1950’s, stood alone at the pinnacle of the musical life of their respective countries. Both wrote accessible tonal music for most of their careers but had fruitful late-life ventures with dodecaphonic techniques (and for Britten, aleatoric ones as well). They could both be very dour and serious or light-hearted and entertaining (usually with a dose of irony). They both drew powerful stylistic inspiration from their own language and literature. And both led marginalized existences within their own cultures, Britten owing to pacifism and homosexuality, Shostakovich owing to a precarious position vis-à-vis official Soviet cultural demands, resulting in a kind of double gamesmanship in which his music appeared to satisfy official requirements superficially while remaining ambiguous regarding its added possible ‘meaning’ as protest. Britten risked much when he included the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen in his “War Requiem” since at the time of its premier, 1961, such a position was rarely taken in public. This was all to change with the Vietnam War, but that lay years ahead. Shostakovich seems to have protected himself by portraying historical events that would be politically approved, such as “The Year 1905” for the Eleventh Symphony which purports to depict the massacre of peaceful protestors by the military at the Tsar’s Winter Palace of that year.1 There is a clear possibility, however, that he was also inspired by more contemporary parallel events such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in which Soviet Russia played the role of the oppressor (cf. note 3). Appreciation of this layer of meaning also lay years ahead, especially in his mother country.
Well do I remember my first few days as a Tanglewood Fellow. The pace of it. Already in the first concert there were brilliant things from the 2013 Tanglewood Music Center. Gabriel Campos Zamora’s clarinet playing in Kodály’s Dances of Galánta was breath-taking. He commanded the time; he commanded the space. I can only call Maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting of the Beethoven 5th Symphony with the Fellows a blessed occasion.
Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner. I’m getting the bare bones out of the way because it’s hard to revisit Britten’s seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.
I’ve written many times about musicians’ giving spiels before they play and how intrusive this can be on the music by denying that important transition from the audience’s excited chatter as they find their seats, to the musicians’ walking on, to the silence before the first note. These spiels are very different from the pre-concert talks which are common now and elective, take place well before the actual concert, and can be informative. Here was a more egregious example — first violin Edward Dusinberre gave an entire short lecture before the Janáček and Britten quartets, complete with short musical excerpts just before they hoed into the actual piece. Then Gordon Kerry himself was brought on to talk about his piece just before they played it. I think even a “modern audience” can take its music straight and have a fighting chance of understanding it. The lecturing seemed to throw them off, the words over-specifying and materializing the music, being too heavily prosaic for the music to bear, though perhaps jet-lag and fatigue from touring, or just a bad day contributed, but it was disappointing that the music of this usually very fine group sounded so flat.
Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting. The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.
The saving grace of “music for children,” I find, is that it is never really composed for children, but about them — or more usually about the part of us which traffics in irony, yet yearns to remain simple and pure. There are few lullabies effective for sleep which would long engage an adult mind, so I know Sasha Cooke will forgive me for saying that her stunningly effective rendition of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies last Tuesday at Music at Menlo, outwitted Morpheus.