Berkshire Review

2016 in retrospect — The Bard Music Festival: Giacomo Puccini and his World

Giacomo Puccini. © Frank C. Bangs, Library of Congress.

If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.

Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic: A musical experience of a lifetime

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic at Symphony Hall. Photo Robert Torres.

After the stunning concert with Simon Rattle leading the Berliner Philharmoniker at Boston’s Symphony Hall—Pierre Boulez’s scintillating Éclat followed (without intermission) by Mahler’s black sheep Symphony No. 7—I couldn’t stop shaking. There’s a lot of good music in Boston, but this was different—on a whole other level. And the audience knew it, felt it. Wasn’t it just what we needed to hear after the bruising election? People were not only cheering but weeping and hugging each other.

Openings: Boston Musica Viva plays Boulez, Marteau sans maître, and Nelsons and the BSO present Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Andris Nelsons, Renée Fleming, Franz Hawlata, Susan Graham. Photo Winslow Townson.

One hoped and expected there would be performances of Pierre Boulez pieces in Boston this season to honor this great musician who died last winter. The Berlin Philharmonic, hardly a local group, will play one piece on its visit here in November. I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So, many thanks to Boston Musica Viva, our fine contemporary music ensemble now in its 48th year, for opening its season with Boulez’s perhaps most significant work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1954-57).

Glimmerglass Festival 2016 – Opera for the Inner Birdwatcher…and the Rest of Us!

As always, I seek some unifying subtext for the offerings, and this year the quest was, at face value, quite simple: birds. An outdoor avian sculpture and a birder challenge in the program booklets left no doubt of the “theme” intended.  However, the degree of suggestion varied from the most obvious (Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie) to the surreal (Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd) and merely suggestive in the others. Rossini’s rarely performed dramatic comedy, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was the most interesting production this season.  While I would never concur with Toscanini’s equating Rossini’s talent to that of Mozart (in quality and not merely in youthful quantity), the mix of comedy and high drama certainly had pretensions to some of Mozart’s great operatic moments. Perhaps, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte served as models for the young composer; he even manages some near literal quotes of these works in the second act.

Bizet’s Carmen at the Boston Lyric Opera

The Boston Lyric Opera has left its long-time, unsatisfactory home in Boston’s Shubert Theater. This season each production will be mounted in a different space, and the Boston Globe reports that BLO has joined some other local theatrical groups to bid for ongoing use of the fine Colonial Theater (now owned by Emerson College) when it is restored and reopens in a year or so—seems an outcome to be wished for. Meanwhile, BLO has started its current season with Bizet’s Carmen in the Opera House on Washington Street, once home to Sarah Caldwell’s highly creative Opera Company of Boston, in recent years home of the Boston Ballet and site of a never-ending stream of very popular traveling Broadway musical productions. The Opera House is a grand space with good acoustics, a broad stage, sizeable orchestra pit, and adequate lobby space on two levels. It is good to see and hear opera staged here once again.

Patrick Dougherty’s Stickworks Augments the Experience of Fall in Massachusetts

Patrick Dougherty, The Wild Rumpus, Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts. Photo Virginia Raguin.

Patrick Dougherty has been making popular installations over a 30-year career in the tradition of Earthworks. Raised and educated in North Carolina (he resides in Chapel Hill), he began with a hand-crafted house in the 1970’s and a decade later was showing human stick figures positioned or standing in chairs. His first works were displayed in art galleries and at art centers before he became engaged with architectural follies that are often massive structures that leap from tree to tree, cover facades of buildings, or stand as independent houses or similarly monumental forms. His output in the past decade numbers nine to ten installations a year—each occupying about three weeks of uninterrupted effort. As well as the hundreds of sculptures in the United States, his work has been enthusiastically received internationally in almost every country in Western Europe as well as Japan and South Korea.

Race and Slavery in Mozart Operas: A Letter to the New York Times

Mozart conducting his Entführung aus dem Serail

A most welcome contribution from Ralph P. Locke, Professor Emeritus of  at the Eastman School of Music, an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times, directed my attention to a review and an article by Zachary Woolfe concerning recent productions he has seen in France of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte. The content of these articles will be clear enough from Professor Locke’s letter and his own commentary.

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Glimmerglass

Greer Grimsley in the title of The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is dark, dark musical theatre. A vengeful barber returns to Victorian London, slits the throats of those who have wronged him and with his accomplice turns their bodies into the stuffing of meat pies. Todd’s London is as menacing as he is …

“There’s a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And it’s filled with people
Who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it …”

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