As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood had a distinguished guest director-curator, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is as admired for his performances of Elliott Carter as for his refined and powerful Debussy and Bach. He had something to convey to his audience, too. He wanted us to know the work of two living European composers important to him: the 53-year-old Italian Marco Stroppa and the 77-year-old German Helmut Lachenmann, figures little known in this country, although Stroppa was a student at MIT in the 1980s and in 2008 Lachenmann was a visiting professor of music at Harvard.
The musical event I was most looking forward to all summer was the premiere of Mark Morris’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964), the first and probably the most beautiful and moving of what he called his three “parables for church performance”—essentially conductorless one-act chamber operas on spiritual themes. William Plomer’s libretto takes Juro Motomasa’s 15th-century Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), Christianizes it, and transfers the location to England’s East Anglian Fenland (the other two church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, are more directly biblical). The new production would be paired with Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (1989), his unforgettable dance version of Henry Purcell’s operatic masterpiece choreographed the year of its tricentennial. And Britten loved Purcell.
It was James Levine’s many cancelations that most directly led to his (perhaps forced) resignation as the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director in the spring of 2011. But Levine has no monopoly on health problems and accidents. The glow of the two superlative concerts I attended at Tanglewood (July 19 and 20) was clouded over by the startling announcement that Levine’s young and healthy replacement, 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, was unable to conduct the July 27 Verdi Requiem, his first scheduled concert since his appointment, because he had suffered a “severe concussion” after being “struck in the head by a door that unexpectedly swung open at his residence in Bayreuth, Germany.” Nelsons came to the attention of the BSO when he filled in for Levine at short notice, leading the Mahler Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. But last year, Nelsons cancelled his Boston debut at Symphony Hall because his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, was having the couple’s first baby.