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).
The first three programs of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra this year have made a nice historical progression from the late Baroque of Vivaldi, to that of central Europe and England with Bach, Zelenka and Handel, now to the late classical period. The fortepiano has come out to replace the harpsichord and the orchestra grown with thicker string sections and clarinets to bring us Haydn and the Italian trumpet virtuoso Gabriele Cassone. For the Haydn G major Symphony, the so-called “Surprise,” Paul Dyer conducts from behind the fortepiano bench, and lays chords oftentimes too while using his body and shoulders to conduct. Though we can catch at times some of the period reproduction fortepiano’s beautiful sonorities, it is too large a hall really to do it justice and often it gets swallowed in the orchestra, but no matter, that is not its purpose here, though it does make a slight difference in color. What is important is that with the larger (late) classical orchestra, the conductor is necessary and conductorly music-making is readily audible here. With more dynamic possibilities from the backed-up strings, and timpani, and opportunities to use them thanks to Haydn (not to mention Gluck!) — and Maestro Dyer (though he never gives himself the label “conductor”) does know how to use it — the orchestra adapts naturally and readily to the new-sounding late 18th century palate. The strings have more solidity, they are still clear, very precise, with guest concertmaster Madeleine Easton leading them with her beautiful playing, but with more structure, polished but with a fine texture by virtue of the gut strings and the varied shapes and sizes of the violins. The orchestra is set up with cellos on the left next to the first violins, and basses, violas and second violins on the right, horns on the back left, trumpets (natural baroque ones) on the back right with the woodwinds in between.