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Vinay Parameswaran leads Festival of Contemporary Music cocurator Jacob Greenberg and Tanglewood Music Center Fellows in Nathan Davis’s “The Sand Reckoner”. Photo Hilary Scott.

Festival of Contemporary Music, August 10-14, 2017

Curated programs were a new and determining feature of Tanglewood’s 2017 Festival of Contemporary Music. In three of the five concerts, repertory and performers were chosen by a performer-curator who selected works by composers with whom they had worked extensively.  Each of the curators, pianist Jacob Greenberg, cellist Kathryn Bates, and violist Nadia Sirota had been at Tanglewood (as part of the New Fromm players) and had developed a significant career in playing and promoting new compositions. The result was a concentration of works by composers of varied backgrounds who are living and working in the United States, and of an age that can be described as “mid-career.” Each curator got to choose one work to be included on the final TMC Orchestra concert.

Phyllis Curtin

A Singer’s Notes 123: a Tribute to Phyllis Curtin and the Opening of Aston Magna

Good-bye, intrepid mentor: girl from the South, great sense of humor, ears which heard better than God, straight talker, full of encouragement, indefatigable, for us who knew her, eternal. An American singer who with her frequent counterpart, Norman Treigle, showed the world that we Yanks could sing. Miss Curtin never sang a phrase that wasn’t dramatic. Many great artists have come and gone in our beloved Tanglewood family, but the very air is tinged with Phyllis Curtin.

A Scene from "The 39 Steps" at the Oldcastle Theatre Company

A Singer’s Notes 122: From Slapstick to Silence

Oldcastle Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, and directed by Nathan Stith, turned Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film into something close to pure farce. A tiny cast of four actors, a few chairs, and we were off to the races. The two clowns, Patrick Ellison Shea and Jim Staudt, were far more than comics. Each turned himself inside out multiple times, portraying every kind of figure, from villain to spouse. I saw an evening performance, and it was electric with energy—this after they had already cut loose in an afternoon matinee. The play seemed entirely and wonderfully about virtuosity.

udra McDonald in "A Moon for the Misbegotten." Photo T. Charles Erickson.

A Singer’s Notes 114: Three Great Evenings

Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 131 makes Horatios of us all. We stand by, we listen to prophetic greatness, we try to respond, but it eludes us. Hamlet tells us there are more things he could say if he had more time. Doesn’t this sound like the Quartet? In the midst of sublimity, Beethoven finds humor. And most Hamlet-like of all, the serious and the risible are jam-packed together, with no recovery time for the listener. The time is short. The Mirò Quartet made this doubly so. The performance had an irresistible forward motion. Even the great set of variations were fleet of foot somehow. Every time I hear this piece I am bewildered. They made it clearer. Partly it was a relentless energy, but mostly it was their ability to make even what silence there is in the piece forward leaning.

Seiji Ozawa Hall. Photo © 2012 Michael Miller.

TMC Nights, 2012, including the Festival of Contemporary Music

The Boston Symphony played a few brilliant concerts in the shed in this anniversary year — not least Charles Dutoit’s two days of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the real excitement came from Ozawa Hall, as the TMC Fellows played with the full excitement of youth in a series of demanding concerts, all weighted towards the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in consistently stimulating and coherent programs, divided between the regular TMC schedule and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This was, in addition, the most satisfying FCM since the Elliott Carter Tribute, because the selection of composers not only had its own coherence in Oliver Knussen’s experience and taste

Alexandre Bloch at the master class with Emanuel Ax, piano. Photo Yska Benzakoun.

A Tanglewood Conducting Master Class — My Bird’s Eye View

The conductor’s arms froze mid-air. The musicians stopped playing. Stefan Asbury,   leader of the Tanglewood Music Center conducting program, had stopped the class.

“They’re not together,” Asbury told Jonathan Berman, the student conductor. Berman gave a small nod. It wasn’t the response Asbury wanted.

“Do you want them to be together?” Asbury pressed, invoking a bit of tough love. This time a bigger nod from Berman.

Stephan Asbury leads TMC Fellows in Knussen's Higglety Pigglety Pop at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music. Photo Hilary Scott.

A Singer’s Notes 55: The TMC Forever!

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.

Kara Cornell and Alexina Jones as Hansel and Gretel in Humperdinck's Opera

A Singer’s Notes 22: To Sing in Endless Morn of Light

The very short apotheosis at the end of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at Hubbard Hall made me think of confluences — the building, the performers, the audience. All of these were here in a gentle and honest synch. It was the most evenly cast opera I have heard in this venue. The staging was honest. The two singers in the title roles were convincing in the simplest way. They looked right, and they sounded right. In the dream sequence, which no staging can match, director Dianna Heldman brought to me a naturalness which was moving in its humility and acceptance of the place in which it was performed. The old hall itself seemed an ideal house for this reality. Nothing which Alexina Jones and Kara Cornell did as Gretel and Hansel was prolix. There was no fake childishness. Humperdinck could be said to have produced an adult’s version of what childhood is- simple tunes, good things to eat, etc. I suppose when compared to “The Magic Flute”, an opera which really is childlike, this is true. But this dead-honest production and its raptly attentive audience in the golden light of the hall made it seem a miracle. There were no weak links on stage, and there were no false steps in the staging. It was great.