Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Concert (PBS, aired 8/10/12)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Night Flight Charles and I watched the PBS Summer Arts Festival broadcast of the 75th anniversary concert at Tanglewood, the Massachusetts retreat which in 1937 was owned by Mary Aspinwall Tappan, who made her property available to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for summer concerts after their first venue in the Berkshires had been angrily denounced by conductor Serge Koussevitsky because the orchestra had to perform under a tent, which Koussevitsky felt was too dangerous for both the musicians and the audience. So in 1937 Ms. Tappan agreed not only to let her estate be used for summer concerts but to build a shed in which the orchestra could play, which stood (with renovations in 1959) until the 1990’s, when Sony Corporation decided to underwrite a new hall and, rather than insist that it be named “Sony Hall,” proclaimed that it should bear the name of Seiji Ozawa, the Japanese-born conductor who had been the principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly 30 years, longer than anyone else. Tanglewood was at least as important for its role as a summer camp for aspiring young musicians than for the professional concerts held there; in 1940 Aaron Copland was hired to be the composition teacher and one of his students was a young Bostonian of Russian-Jewish heritage named Leonard Bernstein. (There are persistent rumors that in addition to teaching Bernstein, Copland also seduced him that summer and gave him his first Gay sexual experience.)

I had thought from the description of this show on the PBS Web site that it would be a documentary about Tanglewood, but instead it was a concert video with a few documentary segments (apparently shown to the live audience at the concert as well as being incorporated into this TV show) stuck in. The program featured three of the orchestras that usually perform at Tanglewood — the Boston Symphony, the Boston “Pops” and the Tanglewood Youth Festival Orchestra — and no fewer than six conductors. It opened with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (what else?) and three “dance episodes” from Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town (itself based on an earlier ballet of his called Fancy Free, about three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City — the musical was filmed by MGM in 1949 but Bernstein was upset because MGM dumped all but four of his songs and had Roger Edens write new ones they thought would be more audience-accessible, and the film’s star, Frank Sinatra, was upset when the studio cut his big ballad feature, “Lonely Town,” from the final cut — “Lonely Town” was heard here as the middle “dance” with a trumpeter taking the vocal line) conducted by the Boston “Pops”’ regular conductor these days, Keith Lockhart. (He’s put on the pounds and the years have not been all that kind, but he’s still a nice-looking man; when I first saw him conduct on a PBS telecast I joked that he’d be trying to pick up someone in a bar in Boston and when the inevitable what-do-you-do-for-a-living? question came up he’d say, “I conduct the Boston ‘Pops’ Orchestra,” and the person he was talking to would say, “Get outta here — the Boston ‘Pops’ is only conducted by white-haired old guys with moustaches or beards!”)

Then the last white-haired old guy with facial hair who’d conducted the Boston “Pops,” Academy Award-winning film composer John Williams, came out and led what was billed as a medley of standards from the Great American Songbook, arranged by someone named Goldstein and featuring the well-known golden throat of … James Taylor. (I guess Tony Bennett was busy that week.) Today James Taylor is an old man with virtually no hair, both by nature and by choice — that full head of hair from the Sweet Baby James album cover half the straight women and Gay men in America fell in love with in the early 1970’s is history, and his voice is as bland and dull as ever as he plowed his way through Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” (the bright-eyed wonder of the young Judy Garland, the hard-bitten world-weariness of the older one and the righteous gospel-soul of Ray Charles were sorely missed in this song), Richard Rodgers’ “Shall We Dance?” (which he did decently but blandly, hardly on a level with Gertrude Lawrence or Deborah Kerr’s all-purpose voice double, Marni Nixon) and Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” (for which he picked up his guitar and seemed a bit more comfortable even though he mangled the words — either that or he was singing an alternate version with some pointless changes from the lyric Oscar Hammerstein II wrote), but aside from the fact that Taylor is a Massachusetts native I can’t think of any earthly reason why he should have been on this show when there are plenty of other singers, including such better-known names (at least today) as Norah Jones or Esperanza Spalding, who could have done these songs worlds better.

Fortunately things got better after that when pianist Emanuel Ax came on with conductor Stefan Asbury and the Tanglewood Youth Festival Orchestra to play the last two movements of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D (it was probably a harpsichord concerto originally, but who cares?) and play them beautifully, following which Yo-Yo Ma (whom I saw with Emanuel Ax in a concert in La Jolla in the 1980’s; they played beautifully but their program was Russian schlock and I’d much rather have heard them play Bach and Beethoven!) came out and conducted the youth orchestra while playing the cello solo in Tchaikovsky’s “Andante cantabile.” That was really the high point of the show; while the acclaim Ma has got has led people to forget that there are other living classical cellists, he played divinely and got the Tanglewood youth orchestra to sound fully professional (there was a brief clip, before the piece started, of him rehearsing them). Afterwards we heard the Boston Symphony under conductor Andris Nelsons (Charles joked that he’d never seen his last name with an “s” on the end of it before, but the man is Latvian and maybe that explains it) and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Sarasate’s fantasy on themes from Bizet’s Carmen. We’d just heard the San Diego Concert Band playing another fantasy on Carmen — and actually a more creatively selected one than this because it dug deeper into the opera and included some of its less familiar bits as well as the Big Hits — but this one was created by a virtuoso violinist to be a showpiece for himself, and it worked vividly for Mutter in that regard. Nelsons also conducted the next piece, Ravel’s La Valse, in a surprisingly slow and restrained manner that worked well in the opening sections (all sorts of slithery things seemed to be emerging from the orchestra pit) but seemed too dull for the final parts, which are supposed to represent the terminal decadence of the Viennese waltz tradition. (Remember that Ravel wrote the piece during World War I, in which Austria and France were on opposite sides.)

The concert’s finale was Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, a piece which lingers on the edge of the repertory only because Beethoven wrote it but still is pretty much a stepchild among his works — I can’t remember ever having heard it before and it’s only rarely been recorded: most of the recordings listed on seem to be fillers for sets of the Beethoven piano concerti and during the LP era Zubin Mehta recorded it as a fourth-side filler for his record of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (well, he had the chorus there already … ), but when the Mehta Ninth was reissued on CD (the form in which I have it) there wasn’t room on the disc for the Choral Fantasy and so it was dropped. Still, it’s middle-period Beethoven (that opus number puts it between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies) and it’s an interesting piece, especially for its structure: it opens with a long introduction for the piano soloist (here, Peter Serkin) alone, following which a few orchestral instruments trickle in until the full orchestra is playing, and then and only then does the chorus make its entrance. I had already been feeling for those poor choristers, who instead of being able to wait backstage (or elsewhere) and only being brought on when the piece they were going to participate in was played, had during this concert to sit on stage all night for an hour and 45 minutes until they finally got to sing. (Charles said it reminded him of a stratagem the Metropolitan Community Church in Sacramento used to get people to join their choir: they advertised, “Best Seats in the House on Easter!”) The piece is an interesting one, almost a beta version of the finale of the Ninth Symphony: not only does it mix orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus, but the text is one of ecstasy and joy — but it needs a better account than it got here: David Zinman was the conductor, and he plodded through it with no sense of ecstasy or joy, more like duty. I’d heard Zinman described as a dull conductor in the pages of the American Record Guide (also Fanfare had some not-so-nice things to say about his recordings, though they were hardly as relentless about it as the ARG’s critics were) but I hardly thought I’d hear so total a confirmation of it as I did in this performance! Overall, the Tanglewood concert was a good one; I’d have enjoyed it if I’d been in the audience (except when James Taylor was singing — all you need to know about Taylor can be summed up if you play his bland, boring version of his own song “Carolina in My Mind” and then listen to the intense, soulful cover Melanie recorded) but at the same time I’d have wished for more “oomph” in the two big works that closed the program. All too often I’ve heard recent recordings of classics that seemed to plod through the score instead of using it to communicate emotion, and there’s more than one piece for which I feel I need a recent recording to tell me how the music is supposed to sound and an historic one to tell me what it’s supposed to be about!