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.
The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)
Gunther Schuller was the toughest mentor I ever had. He expected professionalism from day one—no introductory foolishness. Gunther challenged us, particularly at New England Conservatory, to do things we thought we were incapable of. What other conservatory would put on performances of Wozzeck and Gurrelieder within a few months of each other?
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.
I just saw a spectacular production of Higglety, Pigglety, Pop with the Tanglewood Fellows and the excellent Stefan Asbury conducting. Higglety is one of Maurice Sendak’s longest texts, still it is by no means loquacious. There is clarity and there is sharpness in his writing, and this book from 1967 is no exception. Oliver Knussen’s opulent score on the other hand, is a virtual paean to excess. The impression I got listening to it is that of a two-year-old child with elemental, alarming ideas by the dozen, but only twenty words that are speakable. Even worse, if you are the hero of Higglety, Pigglety, Pop, you are a dog with very few words. The powerful juxtaposition of lean, straight writing and gorgeous, lavishly orchestrated, abundant music shows a rare sympathy with the child who thinks more wonderfully than he can speak.
It takes some imagination to knit together the diverse strands of a program in which four conductors lead four works that have no obvious connections to each other. The obvious point is to show the playing abilities of extraordinary young musicians who have had only a few weeks to form themselves into an orchestra. The programmers apparently selected pieces that would challenge even the most seasoned group. It is no surprise, then, that the character of the playing altered radically from one work and conductor to the next.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.
The news I have been expecting has now officially arrived:
James Levine will withdraw from his concerts with the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center due to further recuperation time needed after recent back surgery.
Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the BSO opening night performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on July 9, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem on July 16, as well as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on July 17.
Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct the staged Tanglewood Music Center Production of Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos on August 1 And 2.
Johannes Debus will have his BSO Debut, conudctin Mozart’s The Abduction From Seraglio on July 23
Hans Graf will lead the BSO in program of marches, waltzes, and polkas by the Strauss Family on July 25 .
An announcement about substitute conductor for program of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong on July 31 will be forthcoming.
These and other changes have been entered in the season schedule below.
What can one say to this? I left my opening sentence as it was, because Maestro Levine’s cancellations are now routine. I wrote a defense of the Maestro back in February, and that still stands. Levine has improved the orchestra, organized some excellent programs, and conducted some brilliant performances, along with some mediocre ones. There is nothing sadder than being unable to work, especially if it is an artistic vocation to which one is devoted, and Mr. Levine’s health may well be out of his control, but he has disappointed his audiences and his TMC students for too long. He has missed 60% of his BSO engagements this past season, and now there is more. We don’t know what to expect next season, either at the BSO or at the Met, where Levine was to inaugurate a much-publicized new Ring Cycle. There is enough evidence for us to conclude that he is truly physically incapable of pursuing the agenda he has taken up at both institutions. It is time for him to cut back his commitments to the point where he can give his best to his public and his students on a reliable, if not consistent basis.