The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Tanglewood Music Festival, very successful by many reports, has just concluded, with the new season in Boston to begin very soon. I offer here the perspective of a look back at the preceding season in Boston, commenting mostly on BSO, but also a few other events. I was able to attend only one Tanglewood concert this summer: the impressive concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, with a large, excellent cast. A good sign for the future.
If you ever wonder how Sibelius' music seems to come in two styles, one bardic, noble, warmly patriotic and slightly thumpy; the other austere, cerebral, craggy and interplanetary, think Karelia. This is the eastern portion of Finland near the White Sea, where ancient forms of native song and poetry still obtained at the turn of the last century. As Vaughan Williams scoured England for folksong and Bartók transcribed them in Hungary, a similar romantic enthusiasm for Finnish roots swept young Finns of the day. Karelianism, it was called, and Sibelius' suite derives from the music he wrote for the Karelia Pageant of 1893, which represented something of a culmination of the movement. The opening "Intermezzo", otherwise a contradiction in terms, was in fact used to separate two tableaux within the festivities.
This was an old-fashioned program — the kind audiences like. Two grand and tuneful symphonic works. A venerated pianist. The debut of a young matinee idol conductor. And last but not least, total absence of any threatening nouvelle cuisine for the ear. So how did it go, this debut?
I was so delighted by Emanuel Ax’s performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Ken-David Masur that I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear him play it again. They created a crystalline texture with their alert interactions, with all the incisiveness of the best chamber music playing. Not exactly what one associates with the New York Philharmonic, as excellent an orchestra as they have been, since Kurt Masur’s t years, but, in my experience, Alan Gilbert is strong with twentieth century Music, and it seemed like a promising combination to say the least…and it did work, although in a way quite different from the Tanglewood performance.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s “American Mavericks” concerts came to New York, centered on four programs at Carnegie Hall with the superb San Francisco Symphony, surrounded by a whirl of fringe events throughout the city. This was a bold and appropriate way to show not only the versatility and virtuosity of the orchestra but also the evolution of orchestral culture in the United States: the works were played as modern classics, with the ideal combination of polish and bite that they call for. The audience has clearly evolved along with the orchestras: Carnegie Hall was close to full with a healthy mixture of grey and not-so-grey heads intently focused on the music. So accomplished and appealing were the performances that even the Feldman work, probably the most novel work on the program, held audience attention effortlessly through its 26-plus minute duration.
While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach's more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, "They all sound alike - how can you tell them apart?" These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way. To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach's musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach's cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills. Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson's definitive field guide. Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends' remarks about Bach's vocal works.
The first evening of Tully Scope devoted to the classical music of the past was no less adventurous than the first two concerts, which revolved around the work of Morton Feldman, who was one of the great musical adventurers of his generation. Emanuel Ax, a fastidious piano virtuoso who combines impeccable taste and restraint with a deep respect for the classics, is fairly new to late Schubert, as I understand. The late piano sonatas in particular, works of grand scope, rich harmony, and deep feeling, offer little in the way of purely pianistic attractions to show off Mr. Ax's fluent technique. I almost feared that his mastery of the keyboard might even get in the way of Schubert's music. These moving performances, on the contrary, went beyond mere elegance and delved deeply into the heart of Schubert's writing. Emanuel Ax did indeed approach the music as a pianist, but, as always for him, the music came first, and that led him in new directions, which he navigated in a way entirely his own.