For those who imagine Tanglewood only as concerts in the huge shed which seats 6,000, these Sunday morning concerts offer a more intimate experience as well as a chance to hear modern pieces they never would hear in what we all call the “regular concert fare.”
By Roberta Silman
Our family has been lucky enough to have been in the Berkshires since the early 1970s, and since then we have indulged ourselves in one of the great pleasures that Tanglewood offers: the Sunday morning chamber music concerts performed by students at the Tanglewood Music Center. The students are sometimes joined by their faculty and players known as the Fromm players who have come to play in Tanglewood’s famous, modern music festival.
For those who imagine Tanglewood only as concerts in the huge shed which seats 6,000 and parking lots that seem to extend to eternity, these Sunday morning concerts are an interesting change for the variety of the repertoire and the way the audience gets introduced to modern pieces they never would hear in what we all call the “regular concert fare.”
The Tanglewood Music Center was founded as the Berkshire Music Center in 1940 by Serge Koussevitzky, who also had the brilliant idea that the Boston Symphony orchestra should spend its summers in western Massachusetts. Each summer it offers admission to approximately 150 very talented, young musicians who have, by and large, finished their undergraduate studies and are now in doctoral or post doctoral programs or playing in regional orchestras. They come from all over the world and are not only performers but composers and conductors, and there is even a place for those who want to write music criticism or study the technical aspects of the piano or go into audio engineering.
Last Sunday, July 10th, was a perfect Berkshire day, and the concert was a beguiling example of the Sunday morning concerts at their best. It was held, as usual, in Seiji Ozawa Hall where there is comfortable, indoor seating but where the hall is so designed that the back, barn-like doors can be opened and people can sit on the grass and listen as well. I can remember when these concerts were held in a tiny hall that has since been demolished and then in the theater that was not nearly as inviting as Ozawa Hall, which is beautifully appointed with wooden seats and ochre walls and wonderful acoustics.
The program was fairly typical: two pieces by students at the Center and two pieces from the classical repertory, all superbly played.
The first, by a young woman named Ju Ri Seo and titled, vi, was for a combination of vibraphone and round bells, played by Gregory Dickson, and piano, which was placed head on so you couldn’t see the soloist, Nolan Pearson. It was a delightful one movement piece that was begun, according to its composer, by going from the “sonority of an A minor chord with the resonance of an A major chord, produced by using the piano’s sostenuto pedal.” “Fascinated by the ambiguity it created,” she has fashioned a limpid tonal piece, the wonderful snippets of melody and their interesting echoes combine to climax “with a C major attack and C minor resonance that quotes Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Making an interesting contrast to that was Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 7, composed when he 30 years old and in thrall to Mahler. The last third of this piece is truly wonderful, and it was played with great verve by violinists Jennifer Yamamoto and Alyssa Yank, violist Esther Nahm, and cellist Loewi Lin. Its triumphant close seemed all the more dramatic because the quartet was played without a break.
After the intermission was another modern piece: TMC Fellow (from Siberia) Grigory Smirnov’s first string quartet in two movements. As he wrote in the program, “The first movement is slow and romantically inspired. The second movement . . . is faster and more dramatic . . . and gradually surrenders to the material of the first movement.” During the slow, dreamlike parts, which were very beautiful, the hall was marvelously quiet, as it almost always is, for this is an audience that takes its music seriously and is very attentive. The participants in this 2010 quartet were Alex Shiozaki and Tema Weinstein, violins, Derek Mosloff, viola, and Michael Dahlberg, cello.
For many listeners, the best is always last, and this time it was an exquisite rendering of Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor for strings, Opus 132, written only two years before the composer’s death. It was enormously moving, the slow movement played slower than I have ever heard it, and the resonant quality of the entire piece was truly unforgettable. The players were Kelsey Blumenthal and Natalie Kress on violins, violist Jocelin Pan, and cellist Sarah Stone.
On this particular Sunday morning, the fellows had been here for less than a month and gave us a memorable concert of very high quality. How they and their teachers do it remains a mystery to those of us who carve out that special time on Sunday mornings during the summer. But how lucky we are.
If the idea appeals, it is easy to attend these concerts, which have varied programs through August 14th: You can pay the reasonable price of $11 at the gate, or you can join the Friends of the Tanglewood Music Center for as little as $75 for one person for the season and attend the concerts by simply showing your Friend’s card.
Here is hard and encouraging evidence that the future of classical music is alive and well—there is often wild applause at the end of the pieces—and is evolving as it always has, with imagination and wit and lots of talent. As one regular sighed at the end, “What a marvelous way to start the week!”
Roberta Silman writes book reviews for The Arts Fuse and spends her summers in the Berkshires. Her last novel is Beginning The World Again, and she can be reached at rsilman @verizon.net