A true embarrassment of riches in the Berkshires this summer, with almost every cultural institution in the county scheduling round-the-clock events and package deals designed to attract even the least culturally interested among us.
James Levine conducts pianist Leon Fleischer and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood (Photo Credit: Hilary Scott)
Last weekend I focused on the two prominent music festivals in the area: the venerable, now nearly 75-year-old Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, MA and the brash eight-year-old Bang on a Can Music Festival at MassMOCA in North Adams.
The lawn at Tanglewood was still too swampy for the hordes of high-end picnickers who customarily bring wine glasses and candelabra to concerts. The great expanse of grass was deserted and concertgoers hurried in from the rain on Friday night when James Levine conducted the BSO in his pairing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 in A, K.488 and Mahler’s Symphony no. 6.
Tanglewood offers Friday concertgoers the option of beginning the evening’s offerings with a free-with Main Concert Prelude by members of the BSO in Ozawa Hall and we took it.
Unlike the mainstage at the Tanglewood Shed, a cavernous open-sided structure which seats over 5000 people and leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of comfort as well as acoustics, Ozawa Hall is one of my favorite places on the planet. Completed 15 summers ago, it is an idyllic place — brick on the outside, mostly wood on the inside — that in the evening always gives me the sense of sitting inside a Japanese lantern. The acoustics are so warm that I’m happy to hear almost anything performed there and I was looking forward to hearing violinist Wendy Putnam, cellist Adam Esbensen — both members of the BSO — and guest pianist Vytas Baksys perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor and Foss’ Central Park Reels, for violin and piano.
The Trio has been recorded by many extraordinary musicians and although each of the musicians played well, the ensemble seemed under-rehearsed, as though they were reading together through the piece for the first time. The Foss reel, on the other hand, is a less frequently heard, less demanding and far shorter piece of music that ended the Prelude on an upbeat.
While the Prelude concerts tend to be uneven, and you don’t always know what you’re going to hear ahead of time, I heartily recommend them to anyone remotely interested in chamber music and even more to anyone who loves the sound of live music in a good hall. On a non-rainy day, the back wall of the hall opens out on the Tanglewood grounds and audience members can listen on the sloped lawn.
The main event on Friday night was spectacular, even though or perhaps in part because it was a reprise of a BSO concert performed in Symphony Hall during the orchestra’s winter season: a pairing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, K.488 and Mahler’s Symphony No.6. James Levine made his 1972 BSO debut conducting this sprawling, difficult and emotionally draining symphony. He brought to it his extraordinary ear, meticulous attention to orchestral detail and — I infer — the fruits of 30 years of study and experience. It’s worth making a trip to Tanglewood just to hear the BSO in its summer quarters. Although the acoustics aren’t great, they’re good enough — and if you buy a lawn admission for little more than the price of a movie ticket, you can sit on a bench in the back of the shed or even find an empty seat closer up. The orchestra has never sounded better and Levine’s interpretation kept you on the edge of your seat even in a piece as long as Mahler’s 6th — which ran about 85 minutes.
Leon Fleischer’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A was equally breathtaking — but in a totally different way. Humble, modest, self-contained in his interpretation, Fleischer and Levine made the concerto sound like a chamber piece. Listening to the pianist perform, it was difficult not to think about the nearly three decades Fleischer did not perform two-handed repertoire and instead mostly taught and conducted because of physical problems with his right hand. There was tenderness not only in his performance of the music itself but an almost palpable tenderness between conductor and soloist as well: they seemed to be connected by something like an umbilical cord. The audience seemed more attentive than usual — as though they too knew they were witnessing something of a miracle. I look forward to next week-end when Levine conducts Brahms’ German Requiem. Go here for details
The scene at Bang on the Can at Mass MOCA is another thing entirely. Where the Tanglewood scene is predominantly middle-aged to elderly, the North Adam arts complex is filled with twenty and thirty-somethings who compete with the exhibition for visual interest. If you haven’t been to the arts complex, it’s something like an American answer to London’s Tate Modern in a former factory in the grimy industrial town of North Adams. The building itself is worth a tour — I find it evokes the feeling of a concentration camp more vividly than either D.C.’s Holocaust Museum or Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.
In addition to having eight or nine exhibitions running concurrently, Mass MOCA is home for the next three weeks to Bang on A Can, the pre-eminent New Music Festival in the U.s. with musical guests from around the world. Concerts take place in the enormous galleries of the museum and I heard Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of a Time in an apt visual setting: between three enormous canvases of the German artist Anselm Kiefer.
Messiaen wrote the Quartet during the second world war, while a POW in a German camp and it had its premiere in that camp in 1941. This performance by four leading exponents of new music — faculty members Nick Photinos, cello; Vicki Ray, piano; Todd Reynolds, violin; and Ken Thomson, clarinet was passionate and convincing, looser than the more classical renditions I’ve heard. Unlike the more staid atmosphere of Tanglewood, the more freewheeling ethos of Mass MOCA encourages audience members as well as musicians to relax. Some audience members felt free to get up and leave in the middle of the performance and the spacious, outsize gallery gives concert going a very different feel than a traditional hall. On the schedule is Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as well as much more. For more information go here.