My leading thought goes against much of what the Bard Music Festival and my own values, for that matter, stand for. And just read Keith Francis’ provocative series, The Great Composers?, the latest installment of which has just been published. I’ve missed only one Bard Festival since 2006, and I’ve heard great music by Elgar, Prokofiev, and Sibelius. And, well, Saint-Saëns was too gifted to be great, and that really didn’t interest him in any case. Of the composers included in the festival, only Wagner and Stravinsky turn up on common lists of the greatest—not that those stupid lists do anything but harm. Still, during the two weekends devoted to Franz Schubert I felt I was living with the gods, and the lingering impression of those weekends swelled accordingly.
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).
I am extremely proud to present, as our single concert of this season, a piano recital by Stephen Porter, a musician of supreme intelligence, sensitivity, and learning. His pianism is equally developed on the fortepiano as on the modern piano, and we are fortunate that his curious ear for historical instruments has drawn him to the unique qualities of the House of the Redeemer’s Grotrian-Steinweg grand in the intimate acoustics of its Library.
I’d have to affect an especially severe attitude to deny that this was a rewarding summer at Tanglewood, although the token single program by a period instrument group, which is always well-attended and in fact important to Tanglewood, if the festival is to represent music-making as it is today, was missing, and I found rather little to attract me into the Music Shed. The post-Levine formula of revered white-haired visitors is wearing thin, and now that a music director has been appointed, there is no longer the titillation of a possible music director emerging from one of the younger guest conductors. The whit heads will carry on through the next seasons at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, until Andris Nelsons, the Music Director Designate, takes over full-time…if that actually happens, we begin to wonder.
Along with the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet, the departure of David Finckel from the Emerson Quartet has been one of the most discussed events in the world of chamber music over the past eighteen months or so. As people who have heard their concerts know, both David Finckel and the Emerson Quartet, now with the British cellist, Paul Watkins, in place, are as rich as ever in their contributions to our well-being as humans. Wu Han and David Finckel spoke with me just today about their new post-Emerson life, which allows David to travel and play more regularly with Wu Han as a duo and as a trio with Emerson violinist Philip Setzer, who will join them at the venerable South Mountain Concerts on Sunday, September 29, 2013. They will play Beethoven Op. 1, No. 2, Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67, and Dvořák’s Trio in E Minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky.”
I hope you enjoy our conversation about their past, present, and future as much as I did.
Well do I remember my first few days as a Tanglewood Fellow. The pace of it. Already in the first concert there were brilliant things from the 2013 Tanglewood Music Center. Gabriel Campos Zamora’s clarinet playing in Kodály’s Dances of Galánta was breath-taking. He commanded the time; he commanded the space. I can only call Maestro Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting of the Beethoven 5th Symphony with the Fellows a blessed occasion.
Huntley Dent has written on these pages “two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature.” So in the simple pairing of the two, a pair of thoughtful and sensitive musicians can ‘say’ more while ‘speaking’ less than many symphonies. Such are Anthony Marwood and Aleksandar Madžar, who play with such humanity to a listener, with originality and directness, with much thought and care. They play with emotional directness even while bravely and generously plumbing the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the difficult music they have chosen.
On looking over this program of familiar works for cello and piano, the last thing one would call it is challenging. Yet, this past Sunday evening, David Finckel and Wu Han made it into something extremely challenging and enlightening. The duo — a husband-wife team, as is well-known — put so much feeling and energy into each piece that each became a world unto itself, formed by such radically different personalities, that it seemed miraculous that the players could make the transition from one to the other within a single evening. As for listening to such performances, I found myself so deeply immersed in these varied planets, that the journey between them seemed vast. Finckel and Wu Han approached them as differing thought processes in different languages.