July 5, 6, 12, 20, 27, 2008 performances reviewed by Dave Conlin Read
We attended four concerts at Tanglewood during July: one illustrated the aphorism “vita brevis, ars longa;” another reminded us that the Tanglewood Festival Chorus are the world’s poorest paid pros; the third showed that the baton works equally well on the distaff side; and finally we saw that nature can impose a felicitous collaboration upon art, even while being otherwise mischevious.
B.S.O. music director James Levine chose to open the 2008 Tanglewood season (July 5 & 6) with a reprising of Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyans, which the orchestra had performed in April during their Symphony Hall subscription season. Not only is this a long piece of music, rarely played, but it never was performed entirely until long after Berlioz was dead – 100 years. Ars longa, vita brevis, indeed.
Maestro Levine divided the work in two, conducting the first 2 acts Saturday night before a Shed full of the usual opening night throng, followed by acts 3, 4, and 5 on Sunday afternoon to a much smaller assemblage.
As one learns from Hugh MacDonald’s extensive program notes, Berlioz had in his mind Virgil’s story of the death of Dido (The Aeneid) from childhood. He completed the composition in 1858 and got to work on having it performed, even lobbying the support of Emperor, who rejected it in favor of Wagner’s Tannhauser. Berlioz only ever heard truncated versions of Part ll.
And so to open the 2008 Tanglewood season, Levine conducted the BSO, eleven vocal soloists and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in what he calls “one of the most amazing works ever created by anyone.”
It was a triumph of brilliant artistry, followed soon by the news that Mr. Levine, who looked exuberant and fit on the podium all weekend, would require surgery and miss the rest of the Tanglewood season. (He is expected to be ready to resume his full schedule with the Metropolitan Opera and the BSO in September.)
On July 12, Bernard Haitnik conducted the BSO in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, with soloists Heidi Grant Murphy and Christianne Stotijn, and John Oliver conducting the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, fresh from their six-hours on stage the previous week.
Calling them the world’s poorest paid pros is just a trick to call attention to the TFC, which is made up of members who donate their services, meaning they are amateurs in the true sense of the word, but who perform at a level usually seen only among top-level professionals.
John Oliver founded the TFC in 1970, comprised today of 32 sopranos, 32 mezzo-sopranos, 29 tenors, and 35 basses. This performance was one of seven during their summer season. They toured Europe last fall with James Levine and the BSO and also have performed in Europe with Maestro Haitnik and in the Far East with Seiji Ozawa.
On July 20, BSO Assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung made her BSO and Tanglewood debut with a program of Schumann and Mendelssohn, with Garrick Ohlsson playing the Schumman Piano Concerto in A. Winner of the top prize in the Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamburg, she is scheduled to make her BSO subscription series debut at Symphony Hall in April 2009.
Ms. Sung was a captivating presence at the podium, alternating between a frenetic yet fluid dynamism and utter stillness according to the requirements of the score. And judging from the beautiful performances by Ohlsson and the BSO, she has the musicians’ full confidence, affection, and respect.
The special feature scheduled for the July 27 program in the Koussevitsky Music Shed was the performance of Joan Tower’s In Memory, performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Roberto Abbado conducting, with Ms. Tower in the audience.
Intruding upon the occasion was the weather, which resulted in a patron being struck by lightning earlier in the afternoon, torrential downpours delaying the start of the program, and finally, rolling thunder that seemed to us not so much a distraction from Ms. Tower’s elegaic composition, but somehow served to frame it, if not provide an uncalled-for embellishment.
Ms. Tower began work on In Memory, which is about death and loss, during the summer of 2001 after the death of a close friend, then the events of September 11 amplified the feeling of loss and suffering in the world and so increased the intensity of the music.
The injured patron’s condition has improved; that unfortunate event and nature’s unscheduled accompaniment only serve to make Ms. Tower’s composition and the rest of the day’s performance all the more memorable.