Gunther Schuller

A Singer’s Notes 112: Remembering Gunther; Tanglewood Forever

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?

Mark Morris’s Staging of Britten’s Curlew River and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Tanglewood

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.

Shostakovich and Britten.

Mid-century Yin and Yang: The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra plays Britten and Shostakovich

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.

Making Sense of Three Modern Classics

For music to make sense, the performer has to be able to display its structure, discover its rhetorical gestures, and properly inflect its musical expression. The performer has to have the understanding, emotional sympathy, and musical ability to do all this. Two of the canonical twentieth century works on this program have offered serious challenges to both performers and audiences: are they arbitrarily constructed to shock and confuse us, or do they make sense? Despite the fact that they continue to raise such questions, both works have become relatively familiar in recent years, and are accepted as modern classics. Arkivmusic.com lists sixteen recordings of the Ives and nine of the Schoenberg; they turn up regularly on orchestral programs. Have audiences gotten to the point where they truly understand these pieces as presented? Have they caught up with Ives and Schoenberg? I think the answer is “not quite.” These remain challenging works, and the extent of the performers’ comprehension remains the critical factor. How well did the TMC Orchestra do under its two conductors? Let’s take each work separately.

All of the performers at the Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Concert take a bow after the finale. Photo Hilary Scott.

Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Celebration in the Music Shed, a Review

In this special version of the popular annual “Tanglewood on Parade” concert, the 75th anniversary of the festival as we know it (more or less) was duly celebrated. On August 5, 1937, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Beethoven concert under Music Director Serge Koussevitzky. (I have already mentioned this in my review of the commemorative repreise of the same program on July 6.) This was the first concert of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, as it was then known, both with the Boston Symphony and on the same property, Tanglewood, which has been the home of the orchestra ever since.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

An Orchestra for All Seasons: Dvorak’s Faith, Schuller’s Dream, Prokofiev’s Shakespeare

It takes some imagination to knit together the diverse strands of a program in which four conductors lead four works that have no obvious connections to each other. The obvious point is to show the playing abilities of extraordinary young musicians who have had only a few weeks to form themselves into an orchestra. The programmers apparently selected pieces that would challenge even the most seasoned group. It is no surprise, then, that the character of the playing altered radically from one work and conductor to the next.

Private Struggles, Public Outcomes: Mid-Century American Musical Negotiations: TMC Orchestra plays Barber, Copland, and Bernstein

Tanglewood mounts a big spectacular every year on July 4th, with James Taylor, the Boston Pops, and fireworks. An equally appropriate, and perhaps more nuanced, way to acknowledge the role music plays in our national consciousness is to offer a program such as the one which occurred two days later in Ozawa Hall. While each work on this program counts as a classic, and the first two have undoubtedly been played in more than one pops concert, the conjunction of the three offers a thoughtful way to experience and appraise the work of three defining figures of 20th century American music.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the TMC Orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony at Tanglewood

The French philosophe Fontanelle famously asked “Sonate, que veux-tu?” in response to the new popularity of a purely instrumental form that asked that the audience do nothing more than sit and listen: “Sonata, what do you want from me?” Hearing Mahler’s extraordinary, gargantuan Third Symphony, one is tempted to repeat the question. What indeed is demanded from the listener by this veritable barrage, this unprecedented outpouring of the full spectra of sounds and noises, human emotional conditions, evocations of life forms from flowers to angels, plumbed philosophical depths, musical allusions encompassing inchoate mutterings, crude military assaults, the most naïve and artless melodies, state-of-the-art sophisticated harmonies, an off-stage post horn, a marriage of a poem by Nietzsche and German folk lyrics, a chorus of boys and women that sings for less than four out of the ninety minutes of the work, pre-echoes of Sousa marches and pop tunes (Sammy Fein’s “I’ll be seeing you…”; Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; the Beatles “Yesterday”), deliberate references to Beethoven, Wagner, and for all I know, even Brahms? Judging from the enthusiasm of its response last Saturday night, whatever it was that the audience was actually imagining or experiencing provided it with a full measure of gratification. But the question remains, what was the composer after: “Mahler, que veux-tu?”

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