Culture Vulture at Tanglewood

Another extraordinary evening at Tanglewood. No bones to pick. Just appreciation and delight.

At Tanglewood: James Levine conducts BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, Conductor; Hei-Kyung Hong, Soprano; Matthias Goerne, Baritone. (Photo Credit: Hilary Scott)

by Helen Epstein

It’s time that some cultural reporter with a budget explored what makes the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of John Oliver so consistently excellent.

Now in its 39th year, the chorus shone in last night’s Tanglewood performance of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. The Requiem, whose text is based on excerpts from the Old Testament and Apocrypha, is a piece that builds from a quiet a cappella (“Blessed are those that mourn”) to passionate bursts of fortissimo where the singers vie with percussion and brass, then comes to a resolution so tranquil that audiences often don’t realize — as some of them didn’t last night — that the piece has ended (“Blessed are the dead’).

The TFC, comprised of nearly 150 unpaid singers who donate hundreds of hours per year rehearsing, performing and touring with the BSO has been conducted for nearly four decades by John Oliver. Who are these people? I wondered, not for the first time, as these superb and disciplined singers lifted one of the classics of the choral repertoire to exciting heights. How can they all afford to donate their time? And how does John Oliver transform a volunteer organization into an artistic body?

James Levine, now widely regarded as the best living conductor of opera, takes up where Oliver leaves off. Meticulously attentive to musical detail, he elicited the best from his his vocalists as well as the vocal repertoire. World-renowned soloists, soprano Hei-Kyung Hong and baritone Matthias Goerne, dovetailed perfectly with the orchestra and chorus and Levine conducted with the panache that concertgoers have come to expect from every performance.

I’m sorry to miss the Tanglewood Music Center’s performances of Don Giovanni tonight, Monday and Wednesday. Levine and stage director Ira Siff have been working intensively with the singers and musicians studying at the TMC. A peek into rehearsals featuring the predatory Don was riveting.

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