No matter what the program is, the look of a traditional concert or recital is predictable. An orchestra? Conductor’s podium front and center, first violins on the left. Piano recital? Keyboard faces left. Performers dress in black or white, formally for recitals. Instruments might improve with time, but they’ve looked the same for upwards of two centuries. Charles Ives didn’t want the ear to “lie back in an easy chair”, but in a concert the sense of sight is temporarily laid off. This past summer at Tanglewood, the Berkshires summer home and school of the Boston Symphony, concert editions invited ears and eyes to work together, enhancing performances and concentrating listeners’ attention. Some events were in the 5000-seat Koussevitzky Music Shed and its surrounding lawns, but most were in the Seiji Ozawa chamber music hall.
When Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax performed Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4, it was called “Visitation” and billed as a premiere. When Colin Jacobsen joined them for an Ives trio, that also was called a premiere and named “Empire Garden”. It was all part of the Tanglewood Music Center’s annual collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris rehearses at nearby Jacob’s Pillow, and at Tanglewood fellows and faculty performed the music his group danced to. “Visitation” and “Empire Garden” were by no means new music, but, rather, new dance settings by Morris, co-commissioned with Lincoln Center and repeated the next week at the Mostly Mozart Festival.
The audacity of choreographing Beethoven and Ives with Ma and Ax as accompanists was heightened by the piano’s placement half offstage so that these famous artists were underneath the EXIT sign. Make no mistake, they loved it and applauded the dancers heartily. Call it prejudice, but the dancers seemed buoyed by the luscious world-class backup. Costumes for the Ives mixed circus and military styles, mirroring the duality of keys and colliding music worlds.
While dancers had the stage, Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 2 (“A Lake”) was flawlessly performed by fellows from a gallery above and behind the dancers, giving the audience a full view of the musicians. For Stravinsky’s Serenade in A, the piano was again half offstage.
More Stravinsky via Morris came the following week, with fellows from the vocal department performing the minimally-staged fable, Renard—a cimbalom player who could read notes was flown in from Salt Lake City. “All of us reveled in the chance to play animals”, said Steven Ebel, a tall tenor bound for Covent Garden’s Young Artist Program, who preened with relish in his ridiculous costume as a boastful Russian rooster. “Mark Morris included a few dance steps that challenged us but were not hard to do, even though we are just singers.”
Watching while listening was also part of a recital by the Hawthorne Quartet. This ensemble of Boston Symphony players was formed by violist Mark Ludwig for the purpose of bringing out lost works composed in Terezin, the Czech war camp cynically presented by the Nazis as a model arts village for Jews. (The recordings are on the Northeastern label.)
Hans Krasa, who had studied with Zemlinsky, expressed a wish to have a picture painted at the performance of his quartet. Ludwig intrepidly tracked down a local painter, Jim Schantz, who didn’t flinch at completing a painting in the time it takes to play a string quartet, or working with music playing and in the presence of an audience.
That thought is unsettling enough, but the unfamiliar quartet was made confusing by a mysterious reversal: the Krasa appeared in the program notes first but was played after the Martinu—listeners thought they were hearing the Krasa and spent at least some of the Martinu wondering where the painter was. Ludwig mentioned the reversal afterward, but that was too late for the Martinu to have been given the attention it deserved. As for the painting, Schantz swayed back and forth, layering the rectangular canvas with red, purple, and orange stripes that some people appreciated.
Opera at Tanglewood (where Peter Grimes had its US premiere) didn’t exactly die after the era of Boris Goldovsky. Seiji Ozawa did semi-staged ones with the orchestra (Jerry Hadley was in Beatrice and Benedict, Frederica Von Stade was in Idomeneo, Hildegard Behrens was Elektra), or single acts, and something small with the vocal fellows and their orchestra. But with James Levine as music director, opera has assumed a higher order of magnitude.
Possibly the largest single concert this summer was Act III of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Because it was a concert version, there was nothing special to see in that splendid intermission-less evening, with the legendary James Morris as Hans Sachs and Johan Botha as Walther.
But two weeks later in the old Theater- Concert Hall, the fellows gave three bubbly, persuasive performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, staged by Ira Siff, known to Metropolitan Opera broadcast listeners as guest commentator and to New Yorkers as the faded diva caricature, Mme Vera Galupe-Borszkh. Levine, who conducted, adores Mozart and thinks deeply about what’s eating these characters. He delves addictively into the meaning of repeat signs and finds a key change that wordlessly uncovers a lie. Singers lithe enough to leap over someone on their way offstage ran, fought, kneeled, carried women, fooled around sexually, and managed stunning coloratura. When Don Giovanni (Elliot Madore) changed clothes with Leporello (Evan Hughes), he added a loose-limbed impression of the servant’s hapless gestures. (How much coaching did that take?)
At Shed concerts, there is something besides the skies to gaze at from the lawn. High-definition screens, at one time used only for Pops or James Taylor concerts, are now permanent for all evening programs. (They don’t work in daylight.) Concertgoers in the rear of the Koussevitzky Music Shed and on the lawn can listen while watching a PBS-type version of the performance, with cameras covering the conductor from several angles before nosing among the sections.
On the sold-out Film Night, John Williams led the Boston Pops (Symphony members minus first chairs) in film-score excerpts while film clips played overhead. At these concerts Williams suavely interviews friends like Steven Spielberg, and startled concertgoers might find themselves sitting next to, say, Martin Scorsese. (Paul Newman, asked once why he was standing alone near a garbage can, said he was waiting to be recycled.)
Michael Tilson Thomas’s family album show, “The Thomashefskys”, must have pulled out every Jew in the Berkshires. The conductor-Bernstein protege-narratorpianist- singer-borscht-belt comic returned after 21 years to conduct the Boston Symphony, and also emceed his down-and-dirty depiction of the tumultuous, audacious lives of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, Ukrainian immigrants who as teenagers launched and led Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Thomas has taken this act around for about five years, nipping and tucking, making cast changes, changing the narrative— his parents have vanished from it—and at two hours and 40 minutes it’s now relatively streamlined. Another 10 minutes removed wouldn’t be a scandal.
Jordi Savall led one of his early music ensembles, Le Concert des Nations, in two Ozawa Hall programs, one comprising dances and other music for Shakespeare plays, with passages read by F Murray Abraham. Ticket sales showed preference for the reading, whether because it was novel, because people are familiar with Shakespeare, or because Abraham is a famous actor. But he wasn’t skillfully amplified, and words didn’t come across. At intermission I approached audience members at the water fountain and coffee kiosk and asked if they made out the words. They gave sheepish excuses: “I can’t hear my own grandchildren”, “This hall is made for music, not words”, “We were on the lawn so we didn’t expect to hear.” No one who didn’t work for Tanglewood said yes. (Some quietly left.) Music selections by Johnson, Locke, and Purcell were elegantly detailed, dances were infectiously rhythmic, and what’s not to like about Shakespeare? The program was still a great idea, and the sound was dealt with in later performances.
This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music was directed by Augusta Read Thomas, a quiet presence in firm control of the event’s musical style and concert proportions. Her choices leaned toward traditional performance— no onstage pizza deliveries, latenight movies, or horn players vanishing into the woods while playing.
On the other hand, Enrico Chapela’s fullorchestra symphonic poem Inguesu is a hotblooded account of a soccer game. His native Mexico (winds, with strings as the rowdy fans) beat mighty Brazil (brass flourishes turning to losers’ low burps). The poised Hungarian conducting fellow, Gergely Madaras, as referee with whistle and penalty card, threw the sullen trombonist out of the game; he slunk offstage. [See Jeff Dunn’s description of the same work in his Cabrillo Festival article in this issue.]
John Corigliano’s Snapshot: Circa 1909 filled a request to 15 composers for a miniature string quartet inspired by photos of their choice. Corigliano’s uncle holds a guitar while his eight-year-old father-to-be, future concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, stares at his violin, totally absorbed. This trifle evoked nostalgia through old-fashioned mode and song style.
Photo op: the centenarian Elliott Carter, a festival regular, stood for a bow after the premiere of his typically brainy duet cycle, Poems of Louis Zukofsky, performed by faculty soprano Lucy Shelton and Boston Symphony clarinetist Thomas Martin, formidable artists. The poetry was not obvious, the range and vocal angles were large, but the burbling clarinet offered helpful comment, reflection, and punctuation.
Memorials are part of all new music weeks here, but Lukas Foss and George Perle, while given token musical representation, were memorialized visually in a summer-long photo exhibition.