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).
In the Twenty-First Century, a festival of contemporary music needs a point of focus. A broad or representative survey is impossible; there are simply too many wildly varied approaches to music-making out there than can be sampled even in a festival twice as long as the six-concert event this summer at Tanglewood. By choosing composers who have been fellows there, the organizers John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi offered a musical profile that was primarily American and tended toward the conservative side, especially compared to past festivals which a greater representation of new European music. Also shown was the arc of American musical thinking over about four generations.
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.
Last November Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Fogg, Artistic Administrator, and members of the orchestra presented the 75th anniversary season of the festival in a low-key event, which, as relaxed and friendly as it was, brought back memories of old Boston in its restraint. No one attempted to hide his pride in this important anniversary of what is undoubtedly the key music festival in North America, but nobody did anything that would be out of place at the Somerset Club either.
David Zinman led this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, where the big event was the world premiere of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, commissioned by the BSO and capping its survey of the Harbison symphonies last season and this. Zinman is a fine conductor, and all went well. He is not a great cultivator of sound or of refined playing, but he has a remarkable sense of musical structure; makes clear, sharp phrases; and sustains a strong rhythm, complex when need be. He opened with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, which sounded fresh and interesting in Zinman’s hands. It is basically a traditional sonata-form piece, but with unusual moves in development of material, and so made a good prelude to an evening of such music. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C followed, with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes giving what might be called a “nice” performance—nice tone and phrasing, all a bit polite and restrained, not fully letting go with Beethoven’s prankishness and oddity.
Not since the Dresden Staatskapelle last played here has an event exuded a like aura of serious appreciation. Despite its current state of unsettled leadership, the Boston Symphony represents a substantial portion of America’s iconic musical past, and you had the feeling on Wednesday that some very proper Bostonians, themselves virtual institutions, had emerged from public obscurity to render homage. Indeed, it was almost disturbing to witness the age of the audience, which in San Francisco tends to be youngish and oriented to date-night. The young, of course, ever perceive disapproval on the faces of the old, though this can be an inadvertent byproduct of trying to focus uncooperative eyes. Some of us in our sixties ruefully begin to notice this. But my imagination wasn’t prepared for the scene in the lobby, where a thousand apparently scowling octogenarians patrolled the halls like alligators—-peering challenges into the not-quite-recognized faces of enemies. Thank heavens for the rejuvenating waters of music!
Things are heating up at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The spate of recent exciting performances began with the great Tchaikovsky “Pathéthique” under Myung-Whun Chung, and has continued with two concert series under Ludovic Morlot, and a series under Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Both Morlot and Bělohlávek led symphonies by John Harbison, part of the series of his six symphonies the BSO began to last season, and will conclude in January. This is material of major importance and interest. It was a great thing for the orchestra to undertake, and the recent performances have been very effective, as were those of the earlier symphonies under James Levine last season. The orchestra musicians seem really to want to play this work, and go about it with a sense of great commitment. Audience response has been very warm.