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.
TMC orchestra performances tend to be somewhat haphazard assortments of repertory, mostly of high quality, but diverse rather than coherent as programs. Monday night’s concert was different: there were resonances among the works that indicated a triangle of influences and artistic interests with the apex being in the music of British composer Thomas Adès, who conducted half of the program.
For me Cymbeline is all about the new Blackfriars Theater, an enclosed space, a place to speak quietly, a place lit by candles, a space that found William Shakespeare buying a house in the vicinity, a space for a riot of inventiveness, revived for us by Tina Packer. Think of the bedroom scene where Iachimo examines the sleeping Imogen. This scene played in The Globe would surely have produced some less than elegant speech from the crowd. Shakespeare and Company’s production chose something of a middle way, a humorous assault on Imogen’s person, which must have played better in the Blackfriars Theater, the audience being genteel, and their number being small.
In line with the excellent work I have heard at Tanglewood, was the Fellows’ vocal concert. Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was masterfully led by mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, Nuno Coelho, conductor, with Nicholas Muni as director. Mr. Muni’s direction was not fussy, and it tapped into the knife-edged nature of the show without excess. Ms. Barron gave a masterful performance. Not only was her voice beguiling in every way, she moved decisively, and somehow naturally, through the opera. Each of her skills contributed to a larger convincing performance in this ice-cold piece.
Aston Magna’s J.S. Bach concert in The Mahaiwe Theatre was a banquet of riches. The music itself ranged from abject woe in Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen to vaudeville hijinks in The Singing Contest of Phoebus and Pan. Where do I begin? The unique singing of Dominque Labelle arrests the senses. You must listen to it. Ulysses Thomas’s rich, aristocratic voice, Jesse Blumberg’s clear, actorly voice, William Hite’s beautiful, beautiful tenor, each spoke eloquently. Above all, the redoubtable Frank Kelley’s complete control of the act of singing, his exaggeration (wildly funny), his movement, and most wonderful of all, the subtle creativity of his timing, brought the house down. He is the complete package.
The week from Sunday July 5 to Friday July 10 at Tanglewood afforded the opportunity to compare one of the world’s great orchestras (the BSO), most of whose members have honed their style and sense of ensemble over many years, to an ad hoc group of very talented young pre- or new-professional players who have been cobbled together into an orchestra in a few days. Regular readers know my inclination toward such ensembles; I seek out the TMC Orchestra concerts more regularly than I do those of the BSO, and last summer’s appearance of the National Youth Orchestra was a highlight of the season.
Gunther Schuller was the toughest mentor I ever had. He expected professionalism from day one—no introductory foolishness. Gunther challenged us, particularly at New England Conservatory, to do things we thought we were incapable of. What other conservatory would put on performances of Wozzeck and Gurrelieder within a few months of each other?