Traditionally, the BSO’s Tanglewood season concludes with a performance Beethoven’s Ninth, an overplayed sound-track triggering optimistic images of brotherhood and the profound goodness of the human heart. The mere fact that this became a ritual has drained it of musical significance—which has been replaced by its function as an ambiguous signifier; it has been pulled out to celebrate great occasions, cultural and political movements of all stripes, including by the Nazis.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Thomas Adès’ affinity for the music of Sibelius was manifest last summer when he led the TMC Orchestra in a program that included the Symphony no. 7. In my review of that performance, I called attention to the relationship between mystery and space that is evident in this music and is also a factor in Adès’s own works. These parameters were present in the current program but not as prominently: mystery was eclipsed by performances that were energetic even to the point of aggressiveness. This might have been a function of the need to project into the cavernous reaches of the shed; both Adès and Tetzlaff, the soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, favored large gestures, emotional intensity, and the upper end of the dynamic spectrum. The results were musically clear and impressive, appropriate for Adès’s own music but sometimes less so for Sibelius.