The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 Tanglewood Music Festival, very successful by many reports, has just concluded, with the new season in Boston to begin very soon. I offer here the perspective of a look back at the preceding season in Boston, commenting mostly on BSO, but also a few other events. I was able to attend only one Tanglewood concert this summer: the impressive concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, with a large, excellent cast. A good sign for the future.
I need more than two hands to count the number of operas I’ve attended in Boston so far this year. Two productions by the Boston Lyric Opera, our leading company; nine (four fully staged) by our newest company, Odyssey Opera; a brilliant concert version by the BSO of Szymanowski’s disturbing and mesmerizing King Roger; all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, performed in repertory for possibly the very first time; a rarely produced Mozart masterpiece, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in a solid and often eloquently sung concert version by Emmanuel Music; the world premiere of Crossing, 25-year-old Matthew Aucoin’s one-act opera about Whitman in the Civil War, presented by A.R.T.; and the first local production of Hulak-Artemovsky’s Cossack Beyond the Danube, the Ukrainian national opera, by Commonwealth Lyric Theatre (imaginatively staged and magnificently sung). Not to mention several smaller production I couldn’t actually get to—including an adventurous new work, Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis, by the heroic Guerrilla Opera, which I got to watch only on-line, and Boston Opera Collaborative’s Ned Rorem Our Town (music I’m not crazy about, but friends I trust liked the production).
A lot of opera! But how full is the cup?
It is always a pleasure to be in the Cape Ann harbor town of Rockport and to attend musical events in the beautiful Shalin Liu recital hall with its glass wall looking out to sea. The June 26th concert provided a striking contrast in styles of Baroque era music, with works of Bach and Handel, respectively, in the two parts of the program. The listener was invited into an emotional journey from darkness to light.
As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.
My colleagues, Lloyd Schwartz and Larry Wallach, have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music’s performance of John Harbison’s third opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won’t attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison’s) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique.
Wagner, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Boito, Janáček, Schoenberg, Berg, and Tippett and Debussy all composed operas to their own libretti (or adaptations of spoken dramas). Now add the name of Harbison. While waiting for permission to compose an opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Harbison began composing anyway. By the time it was appropriate to look for a librettist, too much music had already been written and Harbison took hold on that function himself. The result reflects the composer’s concept of the drama in its broad outlines (the choice of scenes, pacing of the story) and its minute details (the word-by-word unfolding, the rhythms and inflections of each character). Although Harbison had an early history as a poet, the libretto struck me as having a prose-like quality, sometimes quoting the novel verbatim and often sounding like it. The conversational tone brings verisimilitude but sometimes also a certain flatness that may illustrate the directionlessness of the characters’ existence, but can seem oddly out of place in an opera.
The primary occasion for this writing was Emmanuel Music’s fine performance of Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, under Music Director Ryan Turner. However, two extraordinary recordings of works Mozart composed during those busy final months of his life have appeared, as downloads from Pristine Classics, and they are not only magnificent in themselves, but they provide an enlightening context for this somewhat elusive opera seria. These recordings are of the legendary 1951 Salzburg performance of Die Zauberflöte under Wilhelm Furtwängler in the spectacularly improved sound we have come to expect from Andrew Rose, and a magnificent studio recording of the Requiem under Sir Thomas Beecham from 1954-56.
As Ryan Turner began his second season as Music Director of Emmanuel Music so ambitiously with Bach’s B Minor Mass, it seems a good time to reflect on this small, but extremely productive organization and its place in the Boston musical world. One of the most characteristic—and felicitous—aspects of classical music in Boston is the proliferation of these groups, often founded around a chorus, but featuring non-choral music as well, often cultivating a speciality in Baroque music, and often combining this with the music of Classical, Romantic, and contemporary composers. Boston is home to other groups that play Baroque music on period instruments, and some of these have achieved international reputations. At Emmanuel music of the eighteenth century and earlier is played on modern instruments in a style which conforms more or less with the performance practices developed in the postwar years by Günther Ramin and Kurt Thomas with the Thomanerchor at Leipzig, and extending to Fritz Lehmann and Karl Richter in Berlin and Munich—with roots in the reformed performances of the 1920s. This doesn’t mean that these musicians don’t listen to their historically informed colleagues. In Boston, it is pretty well impossible for them not to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. As compelling as period performances of Baroque masters are, there is one great virtue to modern instruments: the music can be performed as part of a tradition extending up to the present day. The musicians can perform Bach seamlessly amidst Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Vaughn Williams, or, say, John Harbison, Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel Music, who wrote an enlightening personal note on the B Minor Mass for this performance.