George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto overshadowed works by three other American composers in the opening Boston Symphony concert at Tanglewood on Friday night (July 3). Those included John Harbison, whose “Remembering Gatsby” began the program with its oxymoronic mixture of modern symphonic angst and ‘20’s pop enthusiasm; Aaron Copland represented by “Lincoln Portrait,” whose evocative score forms the background to a series of political utterances the contemporary signGeorge Gershwin’s Piano Concerto overshadowed works by three other American composers in the opening Boston Symphony concert at Tanglewood on Friday night (July 3). Those included John Harbison, whose “Remembering Gatsby” began the program with its oxymoronic mixture of modern symphonic angst and ‘20’s pop enthusiasm; Aaron Copland represented by “Lincoln Portrait,” whose evocative score forms the background to a series of political utterances the contemporary significance of which was underscored by the austere and effectively harsh delivery by John Douglas Thompson (replacing an indisposed Jessye Norman); and an overblown orchestral version of Duke Ellington’s tone poem “Harlem.”ificance of which was underscored by the austere and effectively harsh delivery by John Douglas Thompson (replacing an indisposed Jessye Norman); and an overblown orchestral version of Duke Ellington’s tone poem “Harlem.”
According to the song, “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” and the same ought to apply to orchestras and conductors. When they do, the results are like love, but when they don’t, it’s a relief when the partnership dissolves. Two concerts at Tanglewood with two very different orchestras and conductors illustrated this dramatically. The orchestras in question were the venerable Boston Symphony working its way through another intense summer of three programs per weekend, and the extremely youthful (ages 16-18) National Youth Orchestra which first assembled this month, at the start of a nation-wide tour. The conductors were the Austrian Manfred Honeck, currently director in Pittsburg, and the American David Robertson, Music Director in both St. Louis and Sydney.
I’d have to affect an especially severe attitude to deny that this was a rewarding summer at Tanglewood, although the token single program by a period instrument group, which is always well-attended and in fact important to Tanglewood, if the festival is to represent music-making as it is today, was missing, and I found rather little to attract me into the Music Shed. The post-Levine formula of revered white-haired visitors is wearing thin, and now that a music director has been appointed, there is no longer the titillation of a possible music director emerging from one of the younger guest conductors. The whit heads will carry on through the next seasons at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, until Andris Nelsons, the Music Director Designate, takes over full-time…if that actually happens, we begin to wonder.
So Brahms is in the next world, lounging around the heavenly Viennese café drinking beer, eating liver sausage, and listening to the band play Gypsy music and Strauss waltzes, when St. Peter arrives with a message: Tanglewood programmers are praying that Brahms return to earth to perform his piano music, some of which is in danger of being totally forgotten. They feel that, of all the great music by all the great composers, Brahms’ early work has been the most egregiously neglected, and furthermore, Brahms’ unique style of playing has been long out of fashion and is almost forgotten, replaced by note-perfect, squeaky clean but emotionally sterile performances of pianists stamped out by the conservatory music factories for the purpose of being recorded digitally and listened to on cell-phones. Tanglewood can promise that there will be an elite group of music lovers and dedicated students who will sit worshipfully at the master’s feet if he would only agree to share his music once more on earth. St. Peter himself can think of no more important reason to breach the boundary between heaven and earth than to offer loyal music-lovers this worldly/other-worldly experience.
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.
Do we live in a golden age of romantic conducting? Last summer I praised Christoph Eschenbach’s performance of Brahms Fourth Symphony for its vivid projection of every nuance, phrase-shape, and color, and last week I enthused about Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s high-tension drama in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Now comes Andris Nelsons, a potential future BSO music director, bringing his own brand of physical activism to the podium in order to micro-manage the details of Brahms’ Second Symphony and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Afterwards, as one enraptured audience member accurately pointed out, “He knew exactly what he wanted from each measure, and got it!” Compare this with James Levine’s comment on the conductor’s role in a performance (I’m paraphrasing): if you work the nuances out in rehearsal, you really do not need to do much more than show the beat. Of course, rehearsal time at Tanglewood is limited, what with three different programs to present every weekend; so Nelsons’ vividly demonstrative mimetics may be the most efficient way to birth a performance capable of reaching the back row of the Shed. This is Mr. Nelsons’ usual modus operandi (attested by You Tube videos) and it clearly delights both musicians and audiences.
The Emerson Quartet have been among Tanglewood’s most admired attractions for many years now. A cloud of nostalgia is beginning to gather over them right now, since it has been announced that cellist David Finckel will be leaving the group at the end of 2012-13. He will be replaced by Paul Watkins, so it is clear that the quartet has no intention of disbanding. However, it will be the end of what is not quite the founding members.
Nicholas McGegan and his merry band of singers and instrumentalists rolled into Tanglewood on Tuesday night (August 16) to wrap up their tour of Handel’s great opera Orlando after taking it to Germany, Chicago, and New York City. The wear and tear of a tour were nowhere evident in their joyful presentation of music and theatrics—the performers still sounded like they were in the thrall of first love with this rich and rewarding score. The only member of the cast who seemed droopy was the Orlando of Clint van der Linde, and this was clearly the persona that he adopted for the misanthropic hero who seems to have lost touch with his inner Achilles. We had to wait for the mad scene late in the second act to see him take charge of the stage; then, if there had been any scenery, he would have chewed it up.