The last time I was at an orchestra concert was in Bologna in February 2020 just as Covid-19 was taking hold in Italy. A few weeks later I saw my last opera just days before Washington locked down. We planned to make the Berkshires in western Massachusetts a stop on our trip, but then I discovered that the Tanglewood Festival was actually and the two days I had planned expanded to four.
Tanglewood wasn’t the only reason we wanted to go to the Berkshires (more on that in the next installment), but once I realized I could hear three orchestra concerts and two chamber concerts in a three-day span, it did become a bit of an organizing framework for everything else. For those who may not know, the Tanglewood Festival has its roots in a series of concerts the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave in the Berkshire in August 1936. Not long after, they built the “Shed” that is still used today. And not long after that, the Tanglewood Music Center was created to offer advanced musical study to young musicians, composers, and conductors. Essentially a summer camp for musicians.
Having played such a central role in the lives and careers of so many musicians in the U.S., I’ve read about Tanglewood since I was 18 and plowing my way through musical biographies. The idea of a bunch of musicians hanging out in the idyllic Berkshire Hills with Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland was always very compelling for me. And having once sung in the chorus of an outdoor performance Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, I knew there was something magical about classical music outdoors on a warm summer evening.
We heard two concerts by the BSO and one by the orchestra of TMC Fellows. The first and last concert consisted of a fantastic mix of repertoire including newer pieces by women and composer of color as well as the dead white guys. And then there was one intensely boring all-Brahms concert which solidified my dislike for single-composer concerts as well as a growing disinterest in the orchestral music of Brahms. I should note that the Brahms concert certainly had the crowd excited. As soon as the applause started we headed out and the crowd went crazy the whole time we walked to our car. (For those who care, I will list out the programs we attended at the end of this post.)
It is hard to put in to words why Tanglewood was so special. Certainly, some of it had to do with getting to hear live music for the first time in 16 months. But there is something about having crickets accompany the music and the summer air, and the sense of something out of the ordinary that also makes it magical.
For my own satisfaction, I doubt I will ever be a lawn person. Too far removed from the music surrounded by folks that might be more interested in a picnic than the music. (I know that is an overgeneralization, but true enough that it would annoy me.) Even within the Shed, I now know to keep my seat choice in the first two sections. The back section of the Shed was too far removed–the music just sounds too far away.
Saturday 8:00 p.m.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Anna Rakitina, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Elena LANGER – Figaro Gets a Divorce, Orchestral Suite
Maurice RAVEL – Piano Concerto in G
Edward ELGAR – Variations on an Original Theme, Enigma
Everything about this concert was a delight. The weather was breezy and cool, it was great to see a female conductor, and the program was great. The Langer piece was fantastic, kind of Bernsteinesque and with a great part for accordion. It’s so nice to hear ‘new’ music that is consonant. I wasn’t a fan of the Ravel previously, but I am now. I’ve heard the Elgar a million times on CD and three times now in concert. I think it gets better every time I hear it.
Sunday 10 a.m.
Tanglewood Music Center Fellows
Benjamin BRITTEN – Russian Funeral Music
Paul TERRACINI – Gegensätze
Max BRUCH – Octet for Strings in B-flat
Johannes BRAHMS – Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor
As I mentioned earlier, this was a really special experience. I would love to hear more of these chamber concerts. The first two pieces were for brass ensemble. There aren’t that many opportunities to hear this kind of rep, so it was quite nice. I loved the Britten, but I loved the Terracini even more. So much so that I found the need to listen to it a few more times later that day and wrote the Australian composer a fan email. He wrote me back with a link to really great performance of the piece by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I was surprised how much I liked the Bruch. Normally I find his stuff a bit too virtuosic just for the sake of it. This however, was lovely.
Sunday 2:30 p.m.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Leonidas Kvakos, violin
Johannes BRAHMS – Violin Concerto in D
Johannes BRAHMS – Symphony No. 4 in E minor
This just wasn’t for me. Too much of one thing, not the biggest fan of Brahms orchestral output, and we were just one click too far back in the Shed. Oh, we also fought sleep like crazy at this time of day. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it more if I had been wider awake, but I sure wanted a hammock during this one. The audience gave a rapturous ovation. Probably because it was Blomstedt and because it was Brahms. Meh.
Monday 8:00 p.m.
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Stefan Asbury, conductor (Dvořák)
TMC Fellow Kevin Fitzgerald (Nabors, Smetana)
TMC Fellow Adam Hickox (Vaughn Williams)
Brian Raphael NABORS – lubilo
Bedřich SMETANA – The High Castle from Má vlast
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Antonín DVOŘÁK – Symphony No. 7 in D minor
After the Brahms bust the day before, it was nice to get back to a program with more variety. And what a delight it was. Except for three BSO musicians and three “guest” musicians, the TMC orchestra is made up of TMC fellows studying for the summer. The quality of their playing was fantastic. Everything on this program was interesting, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I had a really hard time walking away from this concert. Not only was it our final concert at Tanglewood this season, but it was also the final festival concert at Tanglewood this season. And seeing classical music concerts three days in a row, I had some serious withdrawal in the days that followed. Now that I have finally been to Tanglewood, I will definitely be going back in the future.
Travelling and attending musical festivals vicariously through you is better than nought! So thank you for sharing, I felt like I was almost there myself.
How wonderful to see and experience Tanglewood through your eyes and blog – it’s cropped up so many times in things I’ve read, too!
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Sounds like an amazing birthday trip. I’m especially jealous of the setting and the Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Strangely enough I will be hearing the Vaughan Williams again in the coming months.
I agree about the lawn seating — for so many people the concert just becomes background noise for their picnic, it’s very annoying for the people who are actually there to hear the music. Years ago my sister worked for the Ravinia festival at Chicago (the CSO’s version of Tanglewood) and I encountered this many times. I will never forget her telling me the story of a woman in line ahead of her at the entrance who held up everyone else because she didn’t want to pay for a ticket for her butler. She felt that she shouldn’t have to pay for him because he wasn’t there to listen to the music, just to serve her meal. Still shaking my head at that one.