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Letter from Tanglewood: New Digs on the Old Grounds

August 6, 2019

Tanglewood, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Boston’s Logan Airport on the Turnpike — a.k.a. the Mass Pike. After burrowing through the tangled urban tunnels of Boston’s “Big Dig,” the Mass Pike eventually winds through the rolling hills and forests of the Berkshires on the western end of the state – another world. Take the side roads US 20 and State Route 183 through a couple of historic, now-touristy New England villages, and after passing over some more hills and dales, turn left and there it is — the summer home of the mighty Boston Symphony, with its tree-lined main driveway, immaculately manicured emerald-green lawns, and the centerpiece, the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed.

Koussevitzky, the famous music director of the Boston Symphony, founded Tanglewood in 1937, and the Shed went up the following year. Leonard Bernstein got his start there and ended his career there a half-century later, and, so they say, inhabits it still. The beauty of the grounds is staggering, the ambience relaxed and informal on the surface, belying the intensity of this training and proving ground for advanced young musicians behind the bucolic landscape. The list of Tanglewood fellows could serve as a history of classical music composition and performance over the last 80 years.

Not much in the Tanglewood Music Center’s mission had changed from its early days and, until this year, the 1994 opening of Seiji Ozawa Hall near the eastern end of the estate had been its most ambitious building project since the 1940s. But now, just up the hill from Ozawa Hall is a new, four-building complex that opened this summer, the Linde Center for Music and Learning, the home of the Tanglewood Learning Institute. The TLI is supposed to add a whole new dimension of outreach to its audience beyond classical music presentations, finding interconnections with visual arts, film, history, philosophy, and historical and current events. Well, now, I thought, that should make my first visit since spending an afternoon here 22 summers ago something different and memorable. It was.

Upon entering the grounds on July 26, I was sucked immediately into a Wagner Weekend, where the programming inside the Shed — a concert performance of Die Walküre with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, one act at a time — was linked directly to the TLI agenda. I dropped in on an open interview session with Jane Eaglen, the semi-retired Wagnerian super-soprano of her generation, taking place in the brand-new, brightly lit, steeply raked Studio E of the Linde Center. She was funny and self-effacing, delivering various pearls of knowledge like the notion that Wagner’s vocal lines were actually Italianate in nature, and it thus made absolute sense for an inspired outsider like Plácido Domingo to sing them. She was followed by a lively lecture-demonstration on Die Walküre by pianist Jeffrey Swann, which allowed us to hear the room do resonant justice to Swann’s Steinway D piano.

Part of the Wagner immersion included watching a rehearsal of extensive stretches of Die Walküre the following morning. Conductor Andris Nelsons dismissed the singers and concentrated his focus on the orchestral parts, which revealed to us the intricate underscoring usually masked by roaring heldentenors and their friends. I marveled at the superb acoustics of the Shed, three-fourths of which is open to the outdoors; the ample reverberation, warmth and lustrous detail is similar to that of the BSO’s Symphony Hall back in Boston. How did they manage that? Credit is given to the orchestral canopy, installed in 1959, with triangular, blue-lit reflectors in the ceiling, but it still seems incredible, given that reflectors didn’t help other, subsequently built indoor halls.

Another part of the TLI immersion experience is The Big Idea, in which visiting intellectuals, authors, and thinkers make further connections with topics outside of music. Our late-afternoon speaker in Ozawa Hall July 27 was none other than presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, who delivered an edge-of-your-seat, tour through the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. It was a virtuoso performance, loaded with stories and anecdotes. The only hangup was that it was advertised as a lecture connecting Wagner’s myths to the theme of leadership in America and Wagner’s name never came up.

The first act of Die Walküre would be performed later in the evening, with Act II following on Sunday afternoon and Act III early Sunday evening (July 28). There is some wisdom in breaking up the opera that way. It saves the singers’ voices, it spares the young musician,s who have little or no experience playing this densely-packed, physically arduous music (a physical therapist was reportedly on hand during the preparation period), and it gives audiences ample time to meditate on what they just heard.

Each act received electrifying performances from this immensely skilled young orchestra, with Nelsons getting them to play in tempos mostly on the fast side, the drama intense even with stage action consisting of little more than walking entrances and exits. The cast was world-class. Christine Goerke, thought by some to be Eaglen’s successor as our leading Brünnhilde, repeated her triumphant Metropolitan Opera debut this past spring in this role and she was matched in amplitude, emotion, and vocal luster by Amber Wagner’s Sieglinde. Stephanie Blythe’s ferocious Fricka gave James Rutherford’s casually imperious Wotan what for in Act II, after which Wotan seethed, confided and, in the end, evoked real tenderness, each word thoroughly characterized. As Hunding, Franz-Josef Selig found the resonant sweet spot in the Shed’s acoustics, his bass voice booming menacingly, like Fafner the dragon. Sometimes the orchestra might have been too eager to blow, with Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund most vulnerable to being overwhelmed.

Wagner received some unanticipated help — as if he needed any — from Mother Nature, for when Nelsons mounted the podium for Act III, he was greeted with a tremendous clap of thunder. The “Ride of the Valkyries” was then performed with a howling thunderstorm raging outside the open Shed, the wind and rain seemingly whipping up the orchestra, with supertitles like “A storm is building” adding unintentional hilarity. With perfect timing, the storm finally died down just as Wotan and Brünnhilde were left alone. Top that, all you ego-driven stage directors!

Although Wagner belonged to the kids, the BSO also had its weekend spotlight Friday night (July 26). Music Director Nelsons has been busy guiding the orchestra through a mostly excellent Shostakovich symphony recording project lately and Friday they played a flamboyant rarity, the Symphony No. 2 (To October), for the first time. It begins with quiet, atonal clouds of chaos, erupts into an uproariously wild, avant-garde scherzo and concludes with a solemn, joyful choral ode to Lenin and the October Revolution, all in 17 breathless minutes. With the crackdowns of the Stalin years still well in the future, the 20-year-old composer was entirely sincere, I think, and the best way to perform this freaky, future-shock piece nowadays is to play the hell out of it. Which Nelsons, the BSO, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus did brilliantly. It sizzled and popped, a great orchestra having a ball. They will record the piece in Symphony Hall in November, and then Deutsche Grammophon will issue it.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12, with lyrical yet firm, never-precious playing by Paul Lewis, was bathed in the rich, warm BSO string sound that yearned for a time before the authenticity crowd expropriated the field of 18th century music. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, of course, is all wrapped up in the BSO’s DNA from Karl Muck, Pierre Monteux, and Koussevitzky through Charles Munch’s two benchmark complete recordings onward. All Nelsons had to do was tap that bloodstream and let it pour forth in all its suavely opulent color, fluidity, and explosive power. In a concert that touched upon the BSO’s glorious past and present, Nelsons has clearly kept this ensemble in terrific shape.

Taking time out from the Wagner immersion Saturday, I snuck off to catch some music at Ozawa Hall that was not on my schedule — Miguel Harth-Bedoya leading the Young Artists Orchestra from the nearby Boston University Tanglewood Institute in Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto and Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. A classic shoebox design that opens out to a lawn in the rear, Ozawa Hall has pretty much the same rich, dark, reverberant sound as Studio E and the Shed. No wonder everything seems to sound good at Tanglewood.

Correction: The original version of this article misnamed the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra as the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.

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