A Tanglewood Diary 2023 – July 7-16

Written by: David M. Rice

I spent ten days at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, which brings performers, teachers, and students together, enabling music lovers to experience a wide range of musical activities while enjoying the beautiful surroundings that make this such a beloved place. During my stay in the Berkshires, I also was able to enjoy and appreciate several nearby museums and performing arts institutions. 

The concerts I attended included the BSO’s “Opening Night at Tanglewood” and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, both conducted by Andris Nelsons, both reviewed on the Classical Source and linked at the end of this article.

Saturday, July 8 – The Boston Pops – “Ragtime: The Symphonic Concert”

In the afternoon, I drove some fifteen miles to Becket, Mass. to take in a brilliant dance program by the Dutch National Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow, returning to Tanglewood in time for that evening’s performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra of “Ragtime: The Symphonic Concert” in the Koussevitzky Shed.

Keith Lockhart conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra and a stellar cast of vocalists in this debut performance of a new concert version of Ragtime, commissioned by the Pops to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the musical’s Broadway debut, as well as to honor (albeit belatedly, owing to the Covid pandemic) Keith Lockhart’s twenty-fifth year as conductor of the Pops. This adaptation was created by the show’s original authors — composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who collaborated on a reduced score, and playwright Terence McNally, who transformed some aspects of the show into narrative form. These modifications, together with a new orchestration for symphony orchestra by Kim Scharnberg, based on the Tony-winning original by William David Brohn, combine to tailor the show for concert hall performance. McNally passed away in 2020 shortly after the adaptation’s completion, and this performance was dedicated to his memory. 

Ragtime, itself adapted from E.L. Doctorow‘s 1975 novel, provides commentary on American life at the beginning of the twentieth century by means of parallel glimpses into the experiences of three families, one white and well-to-do, one Black and facing injustice, and one of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, as well as the effect of the characters’ interactions as the plot develops. The story touches on issues that remain relevant today, such as racial justice, police brutality, immigration, xenophobia, and antisemitism. There are also set pieces based on famous events and incidents of that turn-of-the-century era, including cameo appearances portraying such influential figures as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, and Arctic explorer Robert Peary.

The cast of nine principals is supported by an ensemble nearly two dozen strong, but the main plotlines revolve around three central characters. Broadway veteran Elizabeth Stanley gives a winning portrayal of Mother, who epitomizes women’s growing assertiveness and their emergence from domination by their husbands (‘What Kind of Woman’). It is her sympathetic humanity that ties the three families together, first by taking in a despairing Black mother, Sarah, and the newborn child she had abandoned and ultimately adopting the child after his parents have both been killed, and then by befriending Tateh, a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter (‘Our Children’). After Mother’s husband is lost on the torpedoed Lusitania, she falls in love with and marries Tateh. Their newly formed family is both ecumenical and interracial, symbolic of America as a melting pot society.

Alton Fitzgerald White, who starred in over four thousand performances of The Lion King on Broadway, is brilliant as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Black pianist whose love for Sarah (‘The Getting Ready Rag’) and aspirations for upward mobility (‘Henry Ford’) are shattered, driving him to seek justice on his own terms (‘Coalhouse’s Soliloquy’) with disastrous consequences. 

John Cariani, an actor with both Broadway and television experience, is Tateh, insecure and fearful when he arrives in New York from Latvia with his young daughter (‘A Shtetl Iz Amereke’), but who eventually becomes a successful filmmaker and finds happiness with Mother.

Lockhart and the Pops musicians (most of whom are members of the BSO) were terrific playing the new orchestral score, maintaining good balance with the (amplified) singers. Jason Daniely’s stage direction moved the action seamlessly from acene to scene, with Wendall Harrington’s projections helping to suggest the varied milieus in which the story takes place. 

Sunday, July 9 – BSO Matinee Concert

Today was a doubleheader. The BSO’s afternoon concert (Koussevitzky) began with the world premiere of Iman Habibi’s Zhiân, followed by Jessie Montgomery’s Five Freedom Songs, sung by Julia Bullock, and ended with Hilary Hahn’s performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto. In the evening, Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) gave a concert of vocal music in Seiji Ozawa Hall. 

The BSO’s matinee curtain-raiser, Habibi’s Zhiân for orchestra, was preceded by remarks by the composer. He explained that it was inspired by recent and ongoing protests in his native Iran and dedicated to the “brave people” of that nation. The title, “Zhiân”, translates to “life” in Kurdish, and to “indignant” or “formidable” in Persian, and is part of the protesters’ main slogan, the spoken rhythm of which forms the main motivic element of Habibi’s piece. (In a conversation after the performance, the composer explained that although he grew up with, and is implicitly influenced by, traditional Persian music, its different system of intonation makes it difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate directly into a piece for a western orchestra, such as Zhiân — “but I’m working on it,” he told me.)

An initial dark and foreboding aura is soon brightened by a lovely melody on the violins, echoed by winds and brass. A rich variety of instrumental colors, tempos and dynamics continues throughout. As the work’s characteristic rhythmic pattern persists in an extended passage, the strings carry the melody first, handing it off to horns and clarinet, then flute and piccolo. Later, after the trumpet summons the rest of the brass, they come to an abrupt halt, following which the violins play soft tremolos beneath woodwind vocalizations. Ultimately, the strings race forward, leading the way to a powerful climax, replete with pulsing brass, topped by the trumpets, and pounding bass drum and timpani. The piece proved quite entertaining and was enthusiastically applauded by the audience.

Jessie Montgomery also spoke before the performance of her Five Freedom Songs, describing her collaboration with soprano Julia Bullock over the past five years, as well as the work’s continuing evolution. Indeed, the order in which the songs were performed was changed even after the program books had gone to press. The work consists of settings for voice, percussion and string orchestra of traditional spirituals that reflect various aspects of the Black experience in America. The first song, ‘My Lord What a Morning’ is a celebration of God’s creation, but Bullock’s joyful vocal line there, ornamented by the glockenspiel, turned more mournful in ‘I Want to Go Home’ – a metaphor for both freedom in life and salvation after death. ‘My Father, How Long?’ expresses the impatient desire of those oppressed to be liberated, as well as their faith that “it won’t be long.” In the funereal ‘Lay dis Body Down,’ Bullock’s elaborate figurations in an ad libitum passage added impact to her words, and she sang out with vigor in ‘The Day of Judgment’ as the musicians clapped out a rhythm described by the composer as “based on a traditional West African drumming pattern”. Bullock’s rich, resonant voice perfectly supported her moving renditions of Montgomery’s settings. 

After intermission, Hilary Hahn gave an exceptional performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto, with Nelsons and the BSO the perfect accompanists. The orchestral introduction, featuring fine oboe and bassoon solos, was taken with great force and vigor, but Nelsons was careful to avoid overpowering the solo violin’s delightful interplay with the violas and later with horn and various groupings of winds. Hahn consistently emphasized the sweetness of her instrument’s vocal lines, giving the lyrical second theme a dance-like feeling. The strings were superb in punctuating the soloist’s runs and arpeggios with a variety of their own pizzicatos, tremolos and bouncing bows. Nelsons struck an ideal contrast between respectful restraint when accompanying the soloist and forcefulness in tutti passages, with the brass quite prominent in the latter. Hahn’s extraordinary performance of Joachim’s cadenza went beyond a display of amazing virtuosity, shaping phrases to attain a level of musicality that outshone any of the many performances that I have experienced. John Ferrillo’s gorgeous oboe solo ushered in Hahn’s rich, lyrical intonation in the Adagio, with horn, winds and low strings offering interjections to accompany the violin’s melodic line. Hahn and Nelsons attacked the Finale with evident joy, giving its Gypsy-influenced rondo tune a rousing rendition. Her encore was ‘Through My Mother’s Eyes’ by Steven Banks.

Sunday, July 9 – TMC Vocal Fellows

Sunday evening’s concert in Ozawa Hall showed off the talents of some of the. one-hundred-fifty young musicians selected to participate as TMC Fellows in an intensive summer program of advanced study, instructed and mentored by a distinguished faculty of visiting artists and composers and members of the BSO. Most of the Fellows play orchestral instruments, and many will ultimately go on to positions in leading orchestras. However, the ranks of TMC Fellows also include singers, pianists, conductors, composers, and librarians. This concert spotlighted four Vocal Fellows, each ably accompanied by a “Vocal Piano” Fellow or, in one case, a string quartet comprised of Instrumental Fellows. 

I was particularly impressed by baritone Kevin Douglas Jasaitis in Charles Fussell’s ‘Being Music’, set to words from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’. The excellent and quite interesting accompaniment was by a string quartet: Katia Tesarczyk and Alexandria Ott (violins), Kunjing Dai (viola) and Brandon Xu (cello). The vocal line ranged from spoken to sung, with gradations in between, all managed marvelously by Jasaitis. At one point, he vocalized “I hear the violoncello” and Xu responded with a solo passage on that instrument. 

Another highlight was soprano Eva Martinez’s juxtaposition of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s ‘White Moon’ (setting a Carl Sandburg poem) with Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Lúa Descolorida’, with Gracie Francis providing beautiful piano accompaniments. Soprano Bridget Esler, accompanied by pianist Elias Dagher, had opened the evening with a fine traversal of four songs from Lili Boulanger’s ‘Clairières dans le ciel’, and mezzo-soprano Bella Adamova closed the concert on a delightful note with six songs by Charles Ives, with Corey Silberstein playing the piano – and also shouting out at one point in ‘The Circus Band’! 

Monday, July 10 – TMC Orchestra

In this TMC Orchestra concert in the Shed, orchestral Fellows performed four well-known pieces. Two works, one by Ravel and one by Stravinsky, were ably led by TMC Conducting Fellows, and the other two were conducted by Andris Nelsons. 

The concert began with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. Nelsons drew superb playing from the entire orchestra, with AJ Neubert’s bassoon solo a notable standout. Other fine solos were contributed by Anqui Zhou on oboe, Quentin Erickson on trumpet and Ji Weon Ryu on flute. Next came Stravinsky’s lively ballet score, Jeu de cartes, impressively led by Polish Conducting Fellow Agata Zając, who will be assistant conductor to Ludovic Morlot with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra for the 2023-2024 season. Her steady, readable baton kept the players in sync, and she shaped phrases with hand and body gestures, bringing out accurately Stravinsky’s often quirky rhythms. Outstanding section principals included Bridget Pei, flute, and Sunho Song, clarinet.

The second half of the concert began with Canadian Conducting Fellow Armand Singh Birk leading Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite with assured poise. He expressively caressed Ravel’s gentle tunes, bringing each of the fairy-tale episodes to life. Bobby Nunes on oboe and Anqui Zhou on cor anglais collaborated marvelously to depict ‘Petit Poucet’ (Tom Thumb), and in ‘Les entretiens de la Belle et la Bête’ (Conversations of Beauty and the Beast), Ryan Turano plumbed acoustic depths on his contrabassoon. In the final section, ‘Le Jardin féerique’ (The Fairy Garden) the strings were especially lovely, accented by contributions from Olivia Chen, violin, Laia Barberà de Luna, harp, and Alexandre Tchaykov, celesta.

The concert concluded with an exciting reading of Debussy’s La Mer, with Nelsons again showing off the talents of the Fellows as they created a sparkling array of orchestral colors to depict waves, wind, and light. Among the excellent principals were Sean Marron (flute), Elias Medina (oboe), Yicheng Gong (horn), Robert Garrison (trumpet) and Abigail Kent (harp). Afterward, Conducting Fellows Zając and Birk returned to the stage along with Nelsons to an enthusiastic ovation. 

Tuesday, July 11

With no concerts scheduled at Tanglewood, I took the opportunity to visit the Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown for an exhibit of paintings by Edvard Munch, as well as re-visiting the Institute’s permanent collection, with its many works by Renoir and other impressionist painters. 

Wednesday, July 12 – Open Workshop with Erin Morley

In an afternoon master class in Studio E, soprano Erin Morley worked with four TMC Vocal Fellows, part of the interplay between Fellows and visiting experts that is a central focus of Tanglewood’s educational program. 

Although all four singers began with well-prepared and vocally excellent presentations of their chosen arias, Morley found ways to help them make further refinements. Baritone Kevin Douglas Jasaitis began the session with ‘Hai gia vinta la causa!’ from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, accompanied by William Shi. Morley worked with Jasaitis on using gestures and movement to better project Count Almaviva’s character and motivation. Next, mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Barkidjija sang ‘Wie du warst’, from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Morley got her to experiment successfully with a different technique for forming some vowel sounds. Elias Dagher not only played marvelously, but also demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability that is a necessary talent for a vocal accompanist. 

Tenor Bradyn Debysingh started with a breathtaking rendition of ‘Un momento di contento’ from Handel’s Alcina. Morley’s focus on adjusting tempos and varying ornamentation proved fruitful for Debysingh, and Morley also was able to coax some subtle modifications to Gracie Francis’s superb accompaniment. The final singer, Yvonne Trobe, accompanied by Corey Silberstein, chose the ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s Rusalka. Morley and Trobe worked on vowel and consonant formation and duration. At one point both women received a clarification on a fine point of Czech pronunciation from a Vocal Fellow from Prague who was in the audience.

In the evening I was back at Jacob’s Pillow, this time for a performance by Gauthier Dance.

Thursday, July 13 – Julia Bullock Recital

The start of this evening’s recital was delayed for about a half hour by torrential rain and wind that littered the ground with broken foliage and even felled some trees. Throughout the performance, lightning flashes could be glimpsed through the tall, narrow windows high above the stage at Ozawa Hall. Happily, this was the only time during my Tanglewood stay that weather interfered with a performance. 

Julia Bullock, who prefers to be called a “classical singer” rather than a soprano, performed a rather eclectic program, accompanied by pianist John Arida. Bullock opened with four German Lieder — two Schubert songs bookending two by Hugo Wolf, the second of which, ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’, featured odd rhythms and harmonies, before singer and piano raced ahead in nearly patter-song fashion in Schubert’s ‘Rastlose Liebe’, with a grand postlude that ends with a bang, Next came a pair of gorgeous love songs by Connie Converse, the first, ‘There Is a Vine’, set in a beautiful garden, and the second, ‘One by One’, depicting lovers walking hand-in-hand at night. The latter led without a break into Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’, with Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics continuing the nocturnal theme. Outstanding idiomatic performances of three more Weill songs followed. Bullock captured the composer’s blend of speech and song in ‘Den wie man sich bettet, so liegt man’ from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahoganny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), Weill’s early collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, and she ended the group with ‘The Princess of Pure Delight’ from Lady in the Dark, singing and speaking Ira Gershwin’s clever lyrics. 

The first portion of the recital ended with Luciano Berio’s versions of three Italian folk songs interspersed with two settings by Rossini of the same Metastasio poem, ‘Mi lagnerò tacento’. The first and last of the Berio songs feature vocalise passages, and the second half of the program began with a vocalise by John Cage in which Bullock was accompanied by Arida performing on a ‘prepared piano’, causing notes at the high end of the keyboard to sound without sympathetic resonance. The improvisatory elements of Cage’s work aptly anticipated the jazz-influenced remainder of Bullock’s recital, beginning with her empathetic delivery of two Blues numbers: ‘Driftin’ Tide’, by Pat Castleton and Spencer Williams, followed by ‘Downhearted Blues’ by Cora “Lovie” Austin with lyrics by Alberta Hunter, in which Arida contributed delightful decorative figures. He then offered a solo piano rag — ‘Frog Tongue Stomp: A Lovie Austin Tribute’ in an arrangement by Jeremy Siskind. Bullock continued to feature works by women composers with a tender account of Billie Holiday’s ‘Our Love Is Different and a pair of songs by Nina Simone that make powerful commentary on racial injustice. ’Revolution’ was delivered in a cross between song and speech somewhat reminiscent of a just-heard Weill song. ‘Four Women’ tells the plight of abused women of color, identifying each of the first three narrators with a stereotypical name, but ends the angry fourth account abruptly without providing a name for its narrator. The program concluded with Billy Taylor’s ‘I wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, in which both piano and singer had passages without the other. In the final stanza, Bullock showed off the lovely high end of her vocal range and then allowed the final word, “Free” to fade away softly over delicate piano figures. As an encore, Bullock brightly waltzed us through Schubert’s ‘Seligkeit’.

Friday, July 14 – Boston Pops – ‘Two Pianos’ 

After taking in a matinee performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 2 at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, I returned to the Shed for the Boston Pops.

In a program titled “Two Pianos: Who Could Ask for Anything More?” Keith Lockhart and the Pops were joined by pianist-vocalist Michael Feinstein and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet to celebrate the music of George Gershwin and his world. Feinstein is the most prominent curator and interpreter of the ‘Great American Songbook’, and Thibaudet has long included Gershwin’s music in his eclectic repertoire. Throughout the evening, the two took turns recounting anecdotes, exchanging quips, and commenting on the Gershwin legacy.

Lockhart and the Pops began the program with the overture to Gershwin’s Nice Work If You Can Get It, in an arrangement by Bill Elliott. After the pianists joined the orchestra in an excerpt from Rhapsody in Blue, they offered music by three other composers who had influenced or been influenced by Gershwin. Irving Berlin’s ‘I Love a Piano’, with Feinstein singing, Thibaudet playing, and the orchestra later joining in, was followed by a medley of waltzes by Richard Rodgers, all performed in arrangements by Tedd Firth. Next was ‘Pure Imagination’ by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, sung by Feinstein with keyboard contributions from both pianists. Thibaudet then took the spotlight with a dynamic performance of the Allegro agitato final movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, with Lockhart and the Pops providing jazzy colorations. Tedd Firth’s delightful, virtuosic arrangement of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar’s ‘Tea for Two’ closed the first half of the program. 

After intermission, André Previn’s arrangement of the overture to the 1959 film of Porgy and Bess restarted the concert. Next was ‘Lucky to Be Me’ by Leonard Bernstein from his 1944 Broadway musical, On The Town (a collaboration with Betty Comden and Adolph Green), in an arrangement by Bill Evans and Feinstein. Singing at first from the keyboard, Feinstein then continued from a seat in front of the pianos as Thibaudet took over the instrumental line. and then gave a haunting performance of Alec Wilder’s ‘I’ll Be Around’, as arranged for piano by Bill Charlap.

The remainder of the concert was devoted to a “Gershwin Fantasy” — an extended medley arranged by Tedd Firth. It began with the famous clarinet riff that launches Rhapsody in Blue and ended with that work’s concluding passage. In between were interpretations of well-known Gershwin tunes, all with lyrics by his brother Ira. The varied renditions included singing by Feinstein, playing by one or both pianists, and orchestral contributions from the Pops. The playlist included ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, and ‘Embraceable You’, the latter opening with a lovely cor anglais solo and a dramatic harp arpeggio leading up to Thibaudet’s amazing interpretation. Other selections included ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, an excerpt from An American in Paris, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ and ‘The Man I Love’, before returning to Rhapsody in Blue. For an encore, the soloists and orchestra offered Gershwin’s ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay’.

Sunday, July 16 – BSO Matinee Concert — Leonore 3 and Carmina Burana

My 2023 Tanglewood Experience ended with a bang: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in an explosive performance by Nelsons and the BSO, vocal soloists Erin Morley, Will Liverman and Reginald Mobley, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Boston Children’s Chorus.  This followed a dramatic reading of Beethoven’s Third Leonore Overture that showed off the entire orchestra’s virtuosity.

In ‘Fortuna imperatrix mundi’ (Fortune, empress of the world) that begins Carmina Burana and is repeated at its conclusion, the orchestra and choruses plunged into the music at top volume, which made the contrast with the ensuing section, ‘Primo vere’ (In springtime), even more effective. After ‘Veris leta facies’ was gently sung by the children’s chorus, baritone Will Liverman made his first appearance with ‘Omnia Sol temperat’, and the large chorus gave a rollicking rendition of ‘Ecce gratum’. The orchestral dance that begins the next section, ‘Uf dem anger’ (On the Green), was infectious, and the two choruses’ alternation in ‘Floret silva’ was delightful in depicting a lover riding away into the distance. The section goes on to feature contributions from both choruses as well as orchestral segments and concludes with a trumpet fanfare and a choral exclamation.

The ’In taberna’ (In the Tavern) section, brought Liverman at the forefront, excelling first in ‘Estuans interius’ and later as the Abbot of Cockaigne in ‘Ego sum abbas’. In between, countertenor Reginald Mobley gave a brilliant portrayal of a swan being roasted alive in ‘Olim lacus colueram’, introduced superbly by Richard Svoboda’s bassoon solo. As the men of the chorus sang of toasts and drinking, Will Hudgens’ interjections with the ratchet stood out among the many percussion instruments.

The mood changed sharply in the ‘Cour d’amours’ (The Court of Love) section, as Morley made her first vocal appearance, joining the children’s voices in ‘Amor volat undique, characterized by delicate flute figurations. She was resplendent in ‘Stetit puella’, depicting a red-dress-clad beauty, and sang with great depth of feeling in the gorgeously lyrical ‘In trutina’. Soon afterward, she capped off her contributions with a high-pitched and melismatic ‘Dulcissime!’. 

Liverman showed off the beauty of his voice at the top of its vocal range in ‘Dies, nox et omnia’, and again in ‘Circa mea pectora’, with the chorus echoing him and interjecting a repeating refrain. A leering account of ‘Si puer cum puella’ by a sextet of male choristers, was followed by the fast-paced choral segment ‘Veni, veni, venias’, sung to an accompaniment by two pounding pianos and a diverse collection of percussion instruments. Liverman and Morley joined both choruses in ‘Tempus est iocundum’, again accompanied by two pianos and percussion. Chorus and orchestra were glorious in ‘Blanziflor et Helena’, which would have served as a magnificent finale had Orff not chosen to reprise ‘Fortuna imperatrix mundi’. 

This summer’s visit to Tanglewood has further deepened my appreciation of how the future of music is shaped by succeeding generations of musicians collaborating with one another under the mentorship of BSO members and visiting faculty.

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