Friday, August 9, 2019

Music critics at Tanglewood

The Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) held its annual meeting at Tanglewood from July 26 to 28. As an MCANA member, I've enjoyed hearing great concerts, listening to lectures and panel discussions, and talking with my colleagues about the music business at these yearly events. Our time at Tanglewood was packed with such opportunities, and I've included some photos and a brief synopsis of my time there.

Tanglewood raised $32 million to build its new Linde Center for Music and Learning, which had its grand opening just a month before we arrived. Encompassing four buildings that provide concert and rehearsal space plus a café, the Linde Center is now the home of the Tanglewood Learning Institute. The TLI offers a wide range of cross-cultural programs, including performances, lectures, and multi-media presentations that can stretch year-around.

Sue Elliott, the director of the TLI (btw: Elliott used to work at Seattle Opera), gave an intriguing presentation about Wagner's Ring at Studio E. (The seating can be retracted to allow a full-size orchestra to rehearse there.)

Sue Elliott at Studio E of the Linde Center for Music and Learning
We also heard Boston Symphony's music director, Andris Nelsons and Wagnerian soprano Christine Goerke talk with BSO and Tanglewood artistic director Anthony Fogg.

Andris Nelsons, Christine Goerke, and Tony Fogg at Studio E, Tanglewood

Nelsons told us that he first heard a Wagner opera when he was five years old. He said that afterwards he was depressed for about a month, but that "it was a good depression." Goerke is a very entertaining talker. Here she is with some of her fans afterwards.

Another engaging and insightful speaker we heard was soprano Jane Eaglen, who now teaches at the New England Conservatory:

On Friday (July 26), MCANA gave its Award for Best New Opera to composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxy Perkins for p r i s m (see this article for more information). Because Reid was at a family wedding, she could not attend in person; so she spoke to us us via a taped video.

Fortunately, Perkins was able to attend our ceremony, and field a number of insightful questions from Canadian critic Arthur Kaptainis before receiving her trophy:

Later that evening we heard a concert featuring the BSO under Nelsons. The performance opened with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2, To October, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. That was the first time that the BSO had ever performed this Symphony, and we could all understand why, because the text joyously praised Lenin. Well, Shostakovich had received a commission from the Propaganda Department of the state music publishers, which assigned the text. He made the most of it with stirring music that moves from a dark, moody, interior to an bright, optimistic exterior.

The Shostakovich was followed by Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12, with Paul Lewis at the keyboard, and the complete ballet score of Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Both pieces were played at a very high level. The Mozart received a crisp and elegant performance that was unfortunately accompanied during the quiet and slow movement by a loud fan somewhere in the ceiling above the orchestra (as far as I could tell). The orchestra delivered a lush and lovely Ravel that was punctuated with terrific waves of sound from the instruments and the voices that washed over the audience deliciously. The wind machine, positioned at the front and extreme left-hand side of the stage and cranked by one of the percussionists, attracted a lot of attention from younger members of the audience. The addition of a few supertitles would have been helpful in order to follow the storyline, which Ravel's music evokes so wonderfully.

On Saturday morning, we took in a rehearsal in the Shed of Die Walküre that was led by Nelsons. It was the final one for the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra in preparation for three separate performances so that everyone in the orchestra could get a shot at playing at least two of the acts. That meant that each concert had a different concertmaster, and there was a rotation of positions within most of the sections. The average age of the orchestra was 25 years old, and Tanglewood hired physical therapists to deal with any issues resulting from the strenuous workout.

We absorbed Act I of Die Walküre that same evening in a concert-staging. The top-tier voices were led by Simon O'Neill as Siegmund, Amber Wagner as Sieglinde, Franz-Josef Selig as Hunding and James Rutherford as Wotan. Wagner threatened to steal the show with her extra-large voice, but all of the singers were in top form and held their own. When Selig struck a thoughtful pose at one point, it seemed to me that he didn't convey the harsh and elemental nature of Hunding. But that was my only nit. The orchestra played brilliantly, and the audience (which was less than the previous evening) responded rapturously.

Act II followed on Sunday afternoon, and the cast grew to include Goerke as Brünnhilde and Stephanie Blythe as Fricka. Blythe's voice has grown in size and expressivity even more than ever. Her lower register threatens to swallow you whole. She was absolutely amazing as the chastising Fricka, and gave Wotan the stink-eye that should have burnt a hole in his white jacket. Rutherford conveyed the Wotan with as much dignity as could be expected. He turned in an exceptional performance when lamenting Wotan's predicament to Brünnhilde.

A huge thunderclap rang out just a few seconds before the downbeat of Act III later that evening. The wind picked up and rain thrashed the trees just after the Valkyries started their Hojotohos, and it all perfectly matched up when they sang "A storm is building!". Anyone who was out on the lawn hopefully got accommodation in the shed, which had a good expanse of empty seats in the back rows. When Wagner sang "O glorious wonder," she let all of the horses out of the stable and created a tremendous sensation. The Valkyries (Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, Renée Tatum, Ronnita Miller, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Eve Gigliotti, Dana Beth Miller, and Mary Phillips) sang with gusto and blended well. Goerke and Rutherford created such fine moments that members of the orchestra (when they weren't playing) were watching intently... but not so intently as to forget when to come back in. The orchestra held its own with a couple of wobbly notes in the brass. The entire enterprise was exceptional.

Other notable events included a lecture by Doris Kearns Goodwin about leadership at the Ozawa Hall. It was basically a book tour speech for her latest book, Leadership, and it was well worth hearing.

Doris Kearns Goodwin with Sue Elliott

We also heard a panel that included Elliott, Fogg, Mark Volpe, president and CEO of the BSO, Jennifer Melick, managing editor of Symphony magazine, and music critic Keith Powers. They primarily discussed artistic planning and the vision of Tanglewood for the future. The folks in charge  have a lot of good ideas that will keep Tanglewood at the forefront of America's music festivals.

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