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.
Sir Simon Rattle
It was a tease this time—opening with minimalist Boulez. But it was worth it. Anyone growing up past mid-century recalls an era when whole portions of the German symphonic experience were seeming property of the Berlin Philharmonic and its legendary conductor, Herbert von Karajan. Put a Berlin Philharmonic LP of Brahms, Strauss, Beethoven or Bruckner on the turntable, and the golden DGG logo virtually guaranteed this orchestra would sound richer, probe more deeply than any other and elicit sheer heft without parallel. No string or brass section would glow as beautifully or emit more power. If that didn't convey authority, as it surely did to anyone with good ears, Karajan's mesmeric space-commander hair, ascetic tunic and "visionary closed eyes" (interesting notion, that) encouraged along the way our notion of insights to be found within—most of them worthy and real.
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.
The fall 2015 orchestral season at Carnegie Hall was dominated by the Boston Symphony Orchestra's traditional three-concert visit, this time in October, and a five-concert traversal of Beethoven's symphonies by the Berlin Philharmonic under their outgoing principle conductor/artistic director, Simon Rattle. Both had their joys and peculiarities, but only Berlin confronted us with any actual disappointments.
Three-star chef. Life may not be a box of chocolates, but the Berlin Philharmonic is, and during their first visit to Royal Albert Hall this Proms season, Sir Simon Rattle made gestures that were like plucking nougatine from a dazzling array of sweets. He beams as he conducts, looking seraphic in a nimbus of snow white hair, and why not? At his disposal is an instrument of unparalleled virtuosity, and he sometimes puts his hands down at his side, gazing in rapt appreciation. If his interpretation should falter, the orchestra will carry the music along as if on a flying carpet. I can imagine someone tiring of London without tiring of life. No one who loves music could tire of the Berliners.
A U.S. tour by one of the great European orchestras is a a costly endeavor—for everyone concerned—and, even if it is a biennial occurrence, it should be nothing less than an important event, especially in New York. I find it a severe disappointment when an orchestra offers routine programming on tour, no matter how well it shows off their glories. These are missed opportunities. The Berlin Philharmonic and their Director, Sir Simon Rattle, therefore deserve our thanks for sticking with the “curated” programming which made their last visit to Carnegie Hall such a memorable esperience. Back then, they combined a cycle of Brahms symphonies with works by Arnold Schoenberg. This year they have taken a step forward and a step back, narrowing their range, to explore the origins of the modern in music in the 1890s. On the way, they have also managed to include some of Sir Simon's signature repertoire in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations and Mahler's Second Symphony, both among the works with which he made his reputation early in his career.