Schoenberg in the opera often mentions Mahler, and we see his name projected on the back screen—a great Austrian Jewish composer who preceded Schoenberg in coming to America. Since James Levine’s day, the Boston Symphony has not given us Schoenberg (though Verklärte Nacht or the Five Pieces for Orchestra, or Gurrelieder might seem a good fit for Music Director Andris Nelsons). But the BSO does consistently perform Mahler, and in recent weeks gave us the huge, choral Second (Resurrection) Symphony and the tuneful and popular Fifth (whose Adagietto for strings is used so poignantly in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice).
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.
I need more than two hands to count the number of operas I’ve attended in Boston so far this year. Two productions by the Boston Lyric Opera, our leading company; nine (four fully staged) by our newest company, Odyssey Opera; a brilliant concert version by the BSO of Szymanowski’s disturbing and mesmerizing King Roger; all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, performed in repertory for possibly the very first time; a rarely produced Mozart masterpiece, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in a solid and often eloquently sung concert version by Emmanuel Music; the world premiere of Crossing, 25-year-old Matthew Aucoin’s one-act opera about Whitman in the Civil War, presented by A.R.T.; and the first local production of Hulak-Artemovsky’s Cossack Beyond the Danube, the Ukrainian national opera, by Commonwealth Lyric Theatre (imaginatively staged and magnificently sung). Not to mention several smaller production I couldn’t actually get to—including an adventurous new work, Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis, by the heroic Guerrilla Opera, which I got to watch only on-line, and Boston Opera Collaborative’s Ned Rorem Our Town (music I’m not crazy about, but friends I trust liked the production). A lot of opera! But how full is the cup?
As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.
The Mark Morris Dance Group was back in Boston with the East Coast premiere of a major new work, Handel’s ravishing pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, under the aegis of the Celebrity Series of Boston, one of the co-commissioners. I loved it. Or to put it more accurately, I’m in love with it, and saw three of its four performances at the Shubert Theatre. Morris has now staged several complete operas and one Handel oratorio. At least two of these are generally regarded as his masterpieces: Purcell’s one-act opera, Dido and Aeneas (1989), in which all the singers are offstage and the dancers play the main characters; and Handel’s L’Allegro,il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), in which the singers are also offstage, and there are no characters. But in Rameau’s delectable Platée (1997) and in Morris’s productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Handel and Haydn Society, 1996; the Metropolitan Opera, 2007), singers played the leading roles and appeared on stage along with the dancers.
The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.
This year will, as everyone hopes, be the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s last season without a music director — at least for another five years. Andris Nelsons has been signed up, and although he’s conducting only two BSO subscription programs this entire year, he’ll be really and officially taking charge next fall. His photo is already on the cover of the BSO program book, with the title “Music Director Designate.”
My collleagues have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music's performance of John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won't attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison's) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique.