Admirable Nelsons; plus, Mark Morris

A leading contender excels at Tanglewood  
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  July 18, 2012

FRESH IDEAS The Tanglewood Gala weekend offered a couple of opportunities to hear the
conducting of Andris Nelsons, a candidate for the BSO music-director position.

At a top ticket price of $2500 (including a gourmet dinner), the gala concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood grossed a cool $1.42 million. Started by visionary Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky, the summer home of the BSO soon turned into a major educational institution, offering music students in every genre the chance to study with respected professionals, especially members of the orchestra itself. Despite ups and downs, Tanglewood remains one of America's most important cultural enterprises.

You wouldn't know that from what was thrown together for the gala, a disconnected hodgepodge of musical styles (is this what happens when there's no music director in charge?), featuring some famous performers. But few of them were at their extraordinary best. Like cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Tchaikovsky's ravishing transcription for cello and string orchestra of the songful Andante cantabile of his string quartet for cello and string orchestra — an in-drawing breath, at times close to silence, when almost everything else was aggressively trying to sell itself. Ma could have sold out the 5000-seat music shed on his own star power.

So could James Taylor, who sang three familiar songs, not his own, out of the American Songbook: "Over the Rainbow" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Shall We Dance" (both taking him out of his vocal and interpretive comfort zone) and, better, a surprisingly touching, folk-like "Ol' Man River," the only number in which he also played his guitar. John Williams led the Boston Pops Orchestra in the drippy arrangements (not his own).

There were also Tanglewood regulars like pianists Emmanuel Ax (in two movements from a three-movement Haydn concerto, led by Stefan Asbury), and Peter Serkin, who closed the nearly three-hour program in Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, with David Zinman leading the BSO and the superb Tanglewood Festival Chorus (the TFC remained on the hot stage for the entire concert, even though they sang only a few minutes of music). Ax's Haydn lacked charm and wit, Serkin's Beethoven lacked force, seeming both precious and without affect. Keith Lockhart opened the evening with a hammering Copland Fanfare for the Common Man and, more stylish, three appealing and poignant dance numbers from Bernstein's On the Town. The first half closed with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, a Tanglewood novice, bringing flashy energy and chops to burn to Sarasate's vulgar Carmen Fantasy.

The whole evening was both broadcast live and videotaped for a PBS GreatPerformances telecast on August 10. What pissed me off was the contempt for the live — paying — audience when a TV camera kept blocking Ma and Mutter's faces from view.

There was also a sweet documentary, Music Under the Moon, about the history of Tanglewood, during which the audience broke into applause for some of their favorite Tanglewood personalities: Seiji Ozawa; James Levine (the only mention of him all evening); the great American soprano and Tanglewood vocal coach Phyllis Curtin. We got some archival footage of the early days of Tanglewood, and an announcer who pronounced the name of former BSO music director Charles Munch as Myoonch.

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Related: A toothsome classical concert season, The BSO opens its summer home without Levine, but with Mark Morris & Yo-Yo Ma, BMOP and Mark Morris, More more >
  Topics: Classical , Mark Morris, classical, tanglewood,  More more >
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