The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste
I just saw a spectacular production of Higglety, Pigglety, Pop with the Tanglewood Fellows and the excellent Stefan Asbury conducting. Higglety is one of Maurice Sendak’s longest texts, still it is by no means loquacious. There is clarity and there is sharpness in his writing, and this book from 1967 is no exception. Oliver Knussen’s opulent score on the other hand, is a virtual paean to excess. The impression I got listening to it is that of a two-year-old child with elemental, alarming ideas by the dozen, but only twenty words that are speakable. Even worse, if you are the hero of Higglety, Pigglety, Pop, you are a dog with very few words. The powerful juxtaposition of lean, straight writing and gorgeous, lavishly orchestrated, abundant music shows a rare sympathy with the child who thinks more wonderfully than he can speak.
Last November Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Fogg, Artistic Administrator, and members of the orchestra presented the 75th anniversary season of the festival in a low-key event, which, as relaxed and friendly as it was, brought back memories of old Boston in its restraint. No one attempted to hide his pride in this important anniversary of what is undoubtedly the key music festival in North America, but nobody did anything that would be out of place at the Somerset Club either.
Varieties of modern orchestral experience, British and American, were on display at the concluding event of this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, with three out of four offerings featuring the full (or over-full) resources of large ensembles. The Carter song-cycle used the pared-down configuration of a good-sized chamber-orchestra to support the solo soprano. Each work inhabited a distinctive sound-world and had its own conductor; it was almost as if we were hearing four different orchestras. It would be neat if I could diagram the four pieces as the points on a musical compass, but the chronological distance between the Copland (1946) and the rest (1982-2010) was such that the picture would look more like a buried root system connected to the leafy ends of three branches, and not all even belonging to the same tree. (Freud said that you are bound to run into problems if you try to construct a physical model of the mind; I’m having the same problem with this set of pieces.) But one implicit subtext may have inadvertently bound three of the four works together, that of war and peace.
The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.
The news I have been expecting has now officially arrived:
James Levine will withdraw from his concerts with the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center due to further recuperation time needed after recent back surgery.
Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the BSO opening night performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on July 9, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem on July 16, as well as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on July 17.
Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct the staged Tanglewood Music Center Production of Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos on August 1 And 2.
Johannes Debus will have his BSO Debut, conudctin Mozart’s The Abduction From Seraglio on July 23
Hans Graf will lead the BSO in program of marches, waltzes, and polkas by the Strauss Family on July 25 .
An announcement about substitute conductor for program of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong on July 31 will be forthcoming.
These and other changes have been entered in the season schedule below.
What can one say to this? I left my opening sentence as it was, because Maestro Levine’s cancellations are now routine. I wrote a defense of the Maestro back in February, and that still stands. Levine has improved the orchestra, organized some excellent programs, and conducted some brilliant performances, along with some mediocre ones. There is nothing sadder than being unable to work, especially if it is an artistic vocation to which one is devoted, and Mr. Levine’s health may well be out of his control, but he has disappointed his audiences and his TMC students for too long. He has missed 60% of his BSO engagements this past season, and now there is more. We don’t know what to expect next season, either at the BSO or at the Met, where Levine was to inaugurate a much-publicized new Ring Cycle. There is enough evidence for us to conclude that he is truly physically incapable of pursuing the agenda he has taken up at both institutions. It is time for him to cut back his commitments to the point where he can give his best to his public and his students on a reliable, if not consistent basis.