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).
South Berkshire Concerts at Simon’s Rock, September 22, 3 pm: Larry Wallach, Eric Martin, Ron Gorevic, Anne Legêne, and guest artist, Marka Young, will play Brahms, Prokofiev, and Mozart.
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.
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.
It is always fun when a new string quartet comes to town, especially when they bring strange and different music with them. György Kurtág is not very strange, but nonetheless somewhat rare around here, and more importantly excellent listening, so I’m grateful to the Kuss Quartet for bringing it, even if short, though holding its own among the more usual fair. And the encore of Mozart’s Cassation in C was entirely beyond the call of duty in such an enormous and dense program, especially considering the concentrated, caring manner of their playing.
There was a certain amount of mystery surrounding this concert since the Tannery Pond season was first announced earlier this year. Venues usually have Emanuel Ax’s programs in plenty of time to include them in their advance season previews. Even if a musician’s repertory is generally familiar, audiences begin to feel insecure, if they don’t know what they’re going to hear in advance, but Emanuel Ax is one of the few musicians who can sell out a house without a program, and that is what happened. The delay made it possible offer a very special surprise, the return of the great violinist, Pamela Frank, to the concert stage after an absence of over a decade. In 2001, she received acupuncture treatment for a hand injury, and this in turn damaged nerves in her arm.
As it turns out, the impression that Brahms himself was performing his own piano music at Tanglewood this summer proved to be illusory, compounded of the modest and Brahmsian demeanor of the actual performer, German pianist Gerhard Oppitz, his serious and total identification with the voice of the composer, and a certain hypnotic spell cast by his unhesitating progress from work to work, as if to say “and then I wrote…”. Oppitz’s performances showed characteristics that would be easy to ascribe to Brahms himself: a completely unfussy treatment of details to keep attention on the large structural sweep of each composition, of which he maintained a clear and magisterial vision at all times; a coloristic differentiation between secondary harmonic figuration and foregrounded contrapuntal activity; and a refusal to be brilliant simply for the sake of being brilliant.
In this the last performance of this program, the Tinalley String Quartet with their usual polish and serious, concentrated approach dipped into distant points in, without any futile attempt to span, romantic chamber music. The all minor key pieces each stood out distinctly by virtue of the composers’ individual emotional and intellectual language, while comfortably yoked together under the Tinalley’s distinctive voice. The subtler sense of humor, perhaps broader range of experience held in Brahms’ music made a very satisfying conclusion to the evening fitting so well the group’s very human tone — warm, but well-rounded and very clear, though at the same time they have a certain relaxed attitude, coloring the group tone as fits the music and their idea of the whole, rather than scrabbling for fleeting spectacle, which makes the performance very memorable. Kristian Chong, the invited pianist, got along very well with the group. Managing to get a remarkably sultry tone out of his Steinway, he seemed to expand the existing coloring of the group for that grand Brahms’ quintet, contributing as much oscuro as chiaro. No multiple-source fluorescent globes here. In the more individualistic writing which brings out each five of the players at some point, each showed an unforced and personal expression yet were always aware of the quintet as an expressive instrument in which their individual thoughts would fly on, the larger group picking up and carrying on the curve of their solo line.