TMC orchestra performances tend to be somewhat haphazard assortments of repertory, mostly of high quality, but diverse rather than coherent as programs. Monday night’s concert was different: there were resonances among the works that indicated a triangle of influences and artistic interests with the apex being in the music of British composer Thomas Adès, who conducted half of the program.
For me Cymbeline is all about the new Blackfriars Theater, an enclosed space, a place to speak quietly, a place lit by candles, a space that found William Shakespeare buying a house in the vicinity, a space for a riot of inventiveness, revived for us by Tina Packer. Think of the bedroom scene where Iachimo examines the sleeping Imogen. This scene played in The Globe would surely have produced some less than elegant speech from the crowd. Shakespeare and Company’s production chose something of a middle way, a humorous assault on Imogen’s person, which must have played better in the Blackfriars Theater, the audience being genteel, and their number being small.
In line with the excellent work I have heard at Tanglewood, was the Fellows’ vocal concert. Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was masterfully led by mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, Nuno Coelho, conductor, with Nicholas Muni as director. Mr. Muni’s direction was not fussy, and it tapped into the knife-edged nature of the show without excess. Ms. Barron gave a masterful performance. Not only was her voice beguiling in every way, she moved decisively, and somehow naturally, through the opera. Each of her skills contributed to a larger convincing performance in this ice-cold piece.
Aston Magna’s J.S. Bach concert in The Mahaiwe Theatre was a banquet of riches. The music itself ranged from abject woe in Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen to vaudeville hijinks in The Singing Contest of Phoebus and Pan. Where do I begin? The unique singing of Dominque Labelle arrests the senses. You must listen to it. Ulysses Thomas’s rich, aristocratic voice, Jesse Blumberg’s clear, actorly voice, William Hite’s beautiful, beautiful tenor, each spoke eloquently. Above all, the redoubtable Frank Kelley’s complete control of the act of singing, his exaggeration (wildly funny), his movement, and most wonderful of all, the subtle creativity of his timing, brought the house down. He is the complete package.
The week from Sunday July 5 to Friday July 10 at Tanglewood afforded the opportunity to compare one of the world’s great orchestras (the BSO), most of whose members have honed their style and sense of ensemble over many years, to an ad hoc group of very talented young pre- or new-professional players who have been cobbled together into an orchestra in a few days. Regular readers know my inclination toward such ensembles; I seek out the TMC Orchestra concerts more regularly than I do those of the BSO, and last summer’s appearance of the National Youth Orchestra was a highlight of the season.
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?
Tanglewood produced many of the summer’s memorable outings, but with pieces which somehow seem easier for a big Symphony to bring across to a big audience in the summer and in the country; music, like every other living thing in New England, can be highly seasonal and very much of its own place and niche. Many of the programs drew from the theater — ballet music and concert opera especially, or from the church — and extremely fine and satisfying performances of Debussy’s Danses: sacré et profane, l’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Charles Dutoit’s of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, and one of Britten’s church parables Curlew River, to leave out many others, seem stick with me for a long time.
Pairing Britten (b. 1913) with Shostakovich (b. 1906) makes for good programming with lots of parallels and contrasts. Both composers were ‘conservatives’ who, by the 1950’s, stood alone at the pinnacle of the musical life of their respective countries. Both wrote accessible tonal music for most of their careers but had fruitful late-life ventures with dodecaphonic techniques (and for Britten, aleatoric ones as well). They could both be very dour and serious or light-hearted and entertaining (usually with a dose of irony). They both drew powerful stylistic inspiration from their own language and literature. And both led marginalized existences within their own cultures, Britten owing to pacifism and homosexuality, Shostakovich owing to a precarious position vis-à-vis official Soviet cultural demands, resulting in a kind of double gamesmanship in which his music appeared to satisfy official requirements superficially while remaining ambiguous regarding its added possible ‘meaning’ as protest. Britten risked much when he included the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen in his “War Requiem” since at the time of its premier, 1961, such a position was rarely taken in public. This was all to change with the Vietnam War, but that lay years ahead. Shostakovich seems to have protected himself by portraying historical events that would be politically approved, such as “The Year 1905” for the Eleventh Symphony which purports to depict the massacre of peaceful protestors by the military at the Tsar’s Winter Palace of that year.1 There is a clear possibility, however, that he was also inspired by more contemporary parallel events such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, in which Soviet Russia played the role of the oppressor (cf. note 3). Appreciation of this layer of meaning also lay years ahead, especially in his mother country.