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Two Weekends in the Country: The BSO and the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, the new Clark, Mass MoCA, and Boston Midsummer Opera’s Bartered Bride

Andris Nelson conducts the BSO at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

Andris Nelson conducts the BSO at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

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). In comparison to previous years, this was an essentially low-key festival. No opera—as opposed to last year’s thrilling American premiere, in concert, of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, conducted by the composer, and the delicious 2012 production of Olly Knussen’s second Maurice Sendak opera, Higglety Pigglety Pop!. And no ambitious tribute to particular composers—like 2008’s magnificent extended tribute to Elliott Carter, or even the 2012 festival in which director Knussen revealed to us the largely neglected delights of the Italian composer Niccolo Castiglioni, who died in 1996, or last year’s director Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s advocacy of Marco Stroppa and Helmut Lachenmann.

The “big picture” this year centered on works by 14 former Tanglewood fellows, dating back to senior Brandeis composer Martin Boykan, who first came to Tanglewood in 1949, and whose As Once on a Deserted Street…, composed in 2010, a haunting quintet for paired violin and clarinet, piano and horn, and isolated cello, opened the 10AM Sunday morning concert at Ozawa Hall, the festival’s most consistently enjoyable concert. Pulitzer Prize-winning Bernard Rands, another musical elder statesman, closed that program with his infinitely touching and nostalgic new Folk Songs, a world premiere—a series of settings tracing some endearingly familiar songs of poignantly personal resonance for Rands, songs coming from his native Yorkshire, Mexico, Wales, and the USA (where he taught, among other places, at Boston University and Harvard). Written for only one singer, this performance offered three, with the outstanding young soprano Laura Strickling the artful standout. These were among the most captivating pieces I’ve ever heard by either of these two usually more austere and academic composers.

That morning program also included an entertaining 11-minute piece by the most recent of the composition fellows chosen for the festival, the young German composer Benjamin Scheuer’s Voices, another premiere, with two antiphonal wind quintets (the performers also playing kazoo, mouth organ, rattle, music box, and slide whistle, letting air out of a balloon, rubbing a tuned wine glass and untuned “fine” sandpaper, etc.) plus electronics manipulating and distorting his friends’ voices. Scheuer said he was inspired by a pontoon boat in the Odessa harbor, and I was thoroughly with the piece until about three-quarters of the way through when the harbor noises disappeared. And there was also one of Michael Gandolfi’s most winning, colorfully kaleidoscopic, and least intellectualized works, incorporating jazzy and Latin rhythms, As Above (2005). Contemporary music concerts aren’t usually so consistently enjoyable.

The Sunday evening concert, that night, included the only two other vocal pieces I got to hear. The more compelling was Kate Soper’s  Helen Enfettered (2009), an extended eight-movement cantata for two sopranos and chamber ensemble (conducted by Aram Demirjian) presenting a complexly ambiguous portrait of Helen of Troy as both seductress and victim. The text is a poem by Christian Bök from his book Eunoia, and this Helen section is a heady and dizzying tour de force consisting of words that include only the vowel e. In Soper’s exquisite lyrical movements, sopranos Marie Marquis and Angela Vallone superbly articulated those words, and their singing, especially together, was ravishing. But Soper also pushed them to frightening extremes of high-volume declamation that bordered on screaming, obliterating any possibility of diction and making the text impossible to follow even on the page.

John Harbison conducted the other vocal piece, Andrew Waggoner’s This Powerful Rhyme (2005), in which two reciters—the hammy Alan Smith (who invented more than his fair share of Shakespeare’s words) and the subtler, warmer Kayo Iwama (both Tanglewood Music Center coaches)—read 20 Shakespeare sonnets woven into a loose narrative. The readings made it difficult to concentrate on the music, and the music wasn’t strong or inventive enough to show how it illuminated the poems.

Among the festival’s other “most-enjoyable” pieces were Astral, David Dzubay’s literally ethereal string quartet (2008), and Keeril Makan’s 2, a brilliant 1998 soundscape for violin and complex percussion, which made an exciting kick-off for the Saturday afternoon concert. The performances throughout the festival were on a very high level. One of the few disappointments was pianist Katherine Dowling’s rendition of George Perle’s intricately epigrammatic Six Études, composed in what he called “12-tone tonality.” I was present at the memorable 1976 premiere, in Boston, at which pianist Morey Ritt asked the audience if she could play the piece a second time, because a cut on her hand had opened and she had been bleeding all over the keyboard. Dowling’s elegant playing, on the other hand, didn’t have enough blood.

The final concert, with the full Tanglewood orchestra, was another good one. The evening began with a rare performance of a BSO centennial commission, in 1981, but that the BSO has seldom returned to: Roger Sessions’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Concerto for Orchestra. This is a piece that is both extremely, almost exotically colorful, giving the members of the orchestra great individual opportunities, and almost dourly austere. The audience seemed radically divided. My sense is that while regular FCM conductor Stephan Asbury led a phenomenally accomplished performance of this phenomenally difficult piece, there wasn’t enough individuality—personality—in the many solo passages, that the young players opted for brilliance and competence (hard enough) instead of a truly personal imaginative response.

Steven Mackey’s heart-on-sleeve Violin concerto, Beautiful Passing (2008), an affecting elegy for his mother, gave the superb Fromm Players violinist Sarah Silver some gratifying material. More original was At the Speed of Stillness (2012) by 32-year-old British composer Charlotte Bray (a composition fellow in 2008)—a riveting depiction, simultaneously racing and suspended, of the pastoral landscape surrounding her home in Aldeburgh, on the North Sea coast northeast of London (with dazzling reminders of Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes), and the looming nearby power plant. The astute conductor was conducting fellow Karina Canellakis, who on the previous morning also led the Rands with distinction.

At the beginning of the concert, Asbury made an announcement that tickled the audience. The final piece on the festival was John Adams’s exuberant, maximally minimalist 1996 Slonimsky’s Earbox, now regarded as one of his essential orchestral masterworks. Adams had been listed in the program booklet as a Tanglewood composition fellow from 1974. But there’s more than one composer named John Adams. John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, and the other two Adamses are both John C., John Coolidge, the famous composer of Slonimsky’s Earbox and Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and John Clement, the actual composition fellow in 1974. John Coolidge evidently prides himself on having few institutional affiliations. So it fell to Asbury to inform us that while the festival was featuring work by Tanglewood composition fellows, the composer who was ending the festival, despite what was written in the program book, was not a Tanglewood fellow. It was a terrific piece, though, and Asbury led a triumphant festival-ending performance.

Last year, the grim George Benjamin opera was so powerful, it ended up defining the whole festival, along with the numerous works of  Stroppa and Lachenmann, composers whose distended lengths and heavy hands I quickly tired of. So in spite of there not being any blockbusters, this year’s FCM has to be considered a success on the grounds that it presented so many fresh and lively pieces—contemporary music that made one happy to hear it.

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It’s common practice that the BSO includes some contemporary music on its weekend programs during the Festival of Contemporary Music and so two contemporary pieces were part of music director designate Andris Nelsons’s two Tanglewood concerts (his first since being named music director). I wasn’t able to attend the concert in which he included a 1999 trumpet concerto he had led before by the Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson on a program in which Nelsons repeated the Brahms Third Symphony, which he played in Boston last fall, and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italienne. The other contemporary piece was a brief orchestral showpiece by Christopher Rouse, Rapture (2000), that sounded like the soundtrack to a bad sci-fi movie—tonal and loud and growing relentlessly louder. One common reservation about Nelsons is his apparent lack of curiosity or knowledge about serious or adventurous contemporary music. His choices here weren’t heartening. He might have found it useful to attend some of the FCM concerts. (Maybe he did, and I just didn’t see him.)

The Nelsons concert with the Rouse also included a sleep-inducing version of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, with a practiced violin solo by Joshua Bell, who had played it in its most recent Tanglewood performance a decade before. Didn’t sound as if he’d found anything new to say about it. His lush violin sounded characterless in a piece (a Spanish fantasy by a French composer) that’s all glamour, insinuation, and character. Zachary Wolfe in the New York Times called it “curiously tasteful.”

That concert ended with one of the hardest tests of a conductor’s mettle, the most famous symphony in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Fifth. Nelsons began with literally punchy gestures, but the famous four-note opening lacked real tension, power or bite. The first movement seemed merely conventional, without any real ideas. The second movement, marked Andante con moto (Slow but with movement), was so lethargic it didn’t seem to move forward at all. Later, there seemed to be more “ideas” but few of them cohered. Passages were slowed down or speeded up almost willfully. Nothing seemed part of a larger conception or narrative. Nothing added up. Beethoven’s famous “false endings” in the finale, with its presto coda, lacked the tension between the appearance of coming to an end and the need to go forward before reaching its truly conclusive final cadence. This performance seemed as if it could stop anywhere, before the last applause-stimulating rev-up. The audience cheered. “He nailed it!” someone called out with enthusiasm. I didn’t think so.

Nelsons is still in his honeymoon phase with the BSO. He’s energetic and lovable and capable of very good performances. And right now, with all the fluff written about him, he sells tickets. But when is his actual music-making going to be what sells the tickets?

The following weekend, Manfred Honeck, director of the Pittsburgh Symphony and a previous guest with the BSO (making his Tanglewood debut filling in for Christoph von Dohnányi, who had to bow out because of a serious illness in his family), showed us just how a concert should work. What a pleasure to hear the first and second violins divided antiphonally (Nelsons likes to switch some strings around but has shown no interest in the more crucial realignment of the violin sections). The program was all classical standards but not the most familiar ones: Beethoven’s brisk Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Mozart’s endearing early piano concerto No. 12, in A, K. 414, just on the verge of breaking into his major concerto phase, and Mendelssohn’s exuberant Italian Symphony, once a BSO staple. If Honeck didn’t exactly tell you anything about these works you didn’t already know, he at least reassured you that everything you knew was right. British pianist Paul Lewis gave his best performance so far with the BSO, combining unshowy tenderness, a singing line, and nuanced rhythmic delicacy with a firm commitment to structure. He nailed it!

I had another commitment the night of Honeck’s Mahler Second Symphony (originally scheduled for Dohnányi, who led a good performance in Boston last fall with the same singers). But I was back in the Koussevitzky Music Shed for another program originally scheduled for a different conductor, the late Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. His replacement was the French-Canadian Jacques Lacombe, director of the New Jersey Symphony. It was a peculiar program: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (“Rach 2”) with Venezuelan virtuosa Gabriela Montero, and excerpts from Verdi, his third opera, Nabucco (his first big success), and the ever-popular Aida, his third-to-last opera.

I was disappointed with Lacombe. Montero’s expressive, songful phrasing and rich, full tone came through even in her most bravura playing, but the orchestra wasn’t exactly inseparable from her and for a while was too loud for her to be heard. But the Verdi was a bigger disappointment. The Overture to Nabucco stitches together contrasting tunes from the opera. So it’s incumbent on the conductor to make the tempo relationships seem inevitable and meaningful. Lacombe just lurched. In the famous chorus “Va, pensiero,” a version of Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”), the Hebrew slaves are yearning for release from captivity—this became almost the official musical anthem for Italian liberation from the Austrian empire during the Risorgimento. It was beautifully sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, but lacked the urgent rhythmic underpinning that turns this lilting hymn into a powerful cry for freedom. During the intermission, before the Verdi, I heard someone behind me singing that chorus. When I turned around to see who it was, a woman laughed: “I’m on the phone with my son in Ireland. I wanted him to hear what I was going to hear.” Her singing had more life than the conductor ultimately delivered.

The Nabucco excerpts were followed by the grand “Triumphal Scene” from Aida, in which the Egyptians publicly celebrate their victory over the Ethiopians while a personal drama is playing out among the four main characters—the Egyptian commander, Radamès (tenor); his lover, the Ethiopian princess Aida (soprano), now a slave; her father, Amonasro (baritone), the Ethiopian king in disguise; and Amneris (mezzo-soprano), the Egyptian princess desperately in love with Radamès and fiercely jealous of her servant Aida. Lacombe, with the help of six brilliant trumpets placed antiphonally on the extremes of the shed’s stage buried the personal crisis in the crowd-pleasing pomp. Verdi’s undulating ballet music, almost cooch, seemed unseductively square. The competent soloists, positioned behind the orchestra, got a little lost, but bass Morris Robinson, resonant and expressive, stood out as Ramfis.

*

The most satisfying chamber music that week in the Berkshires was played at Jacob’s Pillow, most of it accompanying the Mark Morris Dance Group’s delectable program. The musical ensemble was one of the best Morris has ever assembled: celebrated clarinetist Todd Palmer and MMDG music director Colin Fowler at the keyboard in Carl Maria von Weber’s marvellous but seldom heard Grand Duo Concertant, accompanying one of Morris’s most inventive and tonally complex (witty and ominous, sometimes simultaneously) recent dances, Crosswalk; then Fowler and violinist Tessa Lark in Henry Cowell’s six-movement Suite for Violin and Piano (for the glamorously noirish pas de deux Jenn and Spencer);  and cellist Christine Lamprea joining Fowler and Lark for Festival Dance, to Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s appealing if long-winded Piano Trio No. 5 in E major (clarinetist Palmer here generously serving as Fowler’s page turner).

If you’ve got a clarinetist, a violinist, a cellist, and a pianist, then why not perform the most extraordinary work ever written for that ensemble? So on the Sunday morning before the last MMDG dance recital, these splendid players gathered at the Ted Shawn Theatre for Olivier Messiaen’s nearly hour-long Quartet for the End of Time, composed in 1941 for the only ensemble available to the composer in the concentration camp where he was being held. The sublime and heart-rending score, inspired, Messiaen has said, by the appearance of the angel in the Book of Revelations announcing the end of time, got a deeply moving, ecstatic performance, with Palmer especially eloquent in the time-standing still “Abyss of Birds” third–movement for solo clarinet.

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Shifting from eardrums to eyeballs for a moment, I drove up from Lenox to Williamstown to see the new Clark Institute complex designed by Tadao Ando, and to drop in on Mass MoCA for a major Anselm Kiefer installation, also to revisit MoCA’s three-story, four-decade retrospective of “wall drawings” by the late Sol LeWitt (the Kiefer will be in residence for 15 years, the LeWitt for 25!).

Ando is one of the great international architects, but has very little work in this country. The walled-in Pulitzer Foundation museum in St. Louis makes something deeply spiritual out of an intimate space. On this first visit to the new Clark, I left with more reservations than unqualified delight. The little gallery up on Stone Hill, which opened in 2008, is still a joy, and the small exhibit of David Smith sculptures (Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith, through October 19) which places some of the works just as Smith installed them on his own property, is a gem of a show. The big abstract art show from the National Gallery of Art had not yet opened when I was there, so the only exhibit of art works in the new Visitor’s Center building was in a relatively unprepossessing space just off the main lobby: an astonishing little assemblage of ancient ritual bronzes from the Shanghai Museum, pieces more than 2000-3800 years old (through September 21).

Ando's entrance to the original Clark gallery building. Photo © 2014 Michael Miller.

Ando’s entrance to the original Clark gallery building. Photo © 2014 Michael Miller.

The new Ando construction on the 140 acre grounds is a low-slung mostly-glass building, with a wide patio—benches and trees—and three-tiers of descending pools of water, all looking out on the meadows and hills of Western Massachusetts. It’s elegant yet austere, a little less glamorous in person than in the photos. Not having yet seen the major new exhibition space, I’m not ready for a full evaluation. But I can say that walking into the traditional old museum building built in the early 1950s (but looking half-a-century older), which I used to love, was a significantly less pleasant experience this time. Compared to the fancy new Visitors Center, those old narrow corridors, even repainted and rehung, with their low ceilings, and two larger rooms for Impressionist (very bright) and 19th century Academic paintings (dark purple), felt suddenly cramped and claustrophobic. Some of the paintings—like the Clark’s greatest treasure, Piero della Francesca’s sublime Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels—seem better hung and better lit than before. But I kept wanting to be outside, and that’s not a good response from someone who under most circumstances would rather be in a museum than a Visitors Center.

Entrance corridor to galleries from Visitor Center. Photo © 2014 Michael Miller.

Entrance corridor to galleries from Visitor Center. Photo © 2014 Michael Miller.

At Mass MoCA walking through the Sol Lewitts is like being in Wonderland—the intricate black and white drawings almost invisible until they begin to reveal their mind-bending complexity, the ones in supersaturated color a dazzling eye-orgy—one of the most stunning and dizzying visual experiences anywhere. The major Kiefer installation, Velimir Chlebnikov (named after the Russian Futurist who thought that history consisted of devastating sea battles every 317 years), in the Hall Art Foundation Building nearby, is inside a huge corrugated steel “pavilion.” On its two wider walls are 30 large, dark, thick-textured earthy seascapes, facing each other in sets of 15, each slightly more than six feet high—18 of them more than 10 feet wide alternating with 12 just over nine feet wide. And attached to most of them are a variety of model ships in various states of wreckage. It’s about War and Fate and the Power of Nature and Paint itself—and it’s overwhelming.

Anselm Kiefer's Velimir Chlebnikov series of paintings at Mass Moca. Photo from Mass Moca website.

Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov series of paintings at Mass Moca. Photo from Mass Moca website.

*

Meanwhile, in the big city, the Boston Midsummer Opera, now eight years old, returned with music director Susan Davenny Wyner leading Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, the Czech national opera (and a particular favorite of the Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine, who led it there more than any other conductor). After last summer’s production of Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, it’s good to see BMO adding another delightful relative rarity to our summer repertoire.

A Scene from Smetana's Bartered Bride by the Boston Midsummer Opera.

A Scene from Smetana’s Bartered Bride by the Boston Midsummer Opera.

As usual, the production itself was a mixed bag. Even Stephen Dobay’s set had one sweet idea (a backdrop with dangling miniature cottages) and one bad one (a small open pavilion held up by four posts that kept getting moved around the stage and looked cheap and amateurish from every angle). Stage director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman was very good with crowd scenes. The lively circus had acrobats and tumblers—16 irresistible young girls (some of them so young a friend of mine referred to them as mice) from the Central Mass Dance Academy, who spilled into the aisles twirling banners. These scenes brought the whole opera to life. But Ocampo-Guzman had less success with the more intimate moments. Characters were stiffly lined up rather than flexibly interactive.

Of course the Czech libretto had to be sung in English, and the choice of translation, a recent one by poet J.D. McClatchy, an opera librettist himself, was a wise one, with rhymes that were both witty and unforced (“notion” and “emotion” resulting in “commotion”). Too bad the diction of some of the singers wasn’t more consistent, and there were no supertitles.

There were several excellent performances. As Jeník, the mysterious vagabond who barters his fiancée for money but keeps his explanation secret until long after the audience has figured it out, tenor Eric Barry sang securely and had the right air of knowing self-satisfaction (too bad he was trapped in a hideous pair of pink pants that made him look fat and clumsy). As Kecal, the mercenary marriage broker, baritone Jason Budd (Falstaff in The Merry Wives) gave another broad but skillfully detailed performance. And best of all, tenor Ethan Bremner made an endearing Vašek, Jeník’s stuttering half-brother, either too shy or too stupid to go out into the world and who finally discovers his real ambition—to join the circus.

There was, however, one insurmountable problem. Soprano Nicole Percifield, who joined the cast late and commendably learned the part in breakneck speed, was seriously miscast as Mařenka, the title role. She’s evidently been singing as a mezzo-soprano and has a promisingly strong voice with an attractive coppery tone. But as a soprano, her upper register was almost invariably a little south of the right pitch. One problem might be her posture. She sings with her neck bent forward and her chin sticking out, which must surely inhibit the flow of air that supports her voice, as if she were strangling herself. Maybe a good physical therapist could help. She seemed to know the words, but her enunciation lacked bite. And even more problematical, in a part where charm may be more important even than technical perfection, Percifield was a stiff and charmless comedienne. Mařenka is a sparkling minx with a mind of her own who gets bamboozled by her lover’s convoluted plot to win her. That’s why we care about her. Percifield has the good looks and the vocal potential to play any heroine, but I found it hard to fall in love with her.

Still, Susan Davenny Wyner was at the top of her game. The familiar overture fizzed like Czech Gilbert & Sullivan, and because the curtain remained down, we could actually listen to it and absorb the themes that Smetana would soon develop in the course of the opera. And Wyner kept the small but choice orchestra (Peggy Pearson on oboe—need I say more?) on its toes throughout, and the lyrical passages were models of musical loveliness. Even without an adequate bride, we got a real taste of this appealing and important opera.

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