By Lawrence Budmen

The mountains and hills of the Berkshires in northwestern Massachusetts are truly alive with the sound of music each summer. Music lovers and arts patrons follow the road to Tanglewood. Located just outside the picturesque town of Lenox, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Tanglewood Music Center is a major educational institution that attracts gifted students from around the globe. 

Amongst this veritable feast of music making, the premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul (Blue), a New Age meditation for cello and orchestra, on August 4 took pride of place. The Argentinean-Israeli composer combines Judaic, gypsy, and modernist elements to create a sound world all his own. Azul is a work of genius. The remarkable Yo-Yo Ma gave an extraordinary performance of the high, piercing cello line. Leading an ensemble that included accordion and a large percussion battery that imitated the sounds of indigenous South American folk instruments, conductor Donald Runnicles (well known for his work with the San Francisco Opera, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the BBC orchestras) led a bracing performance. Ma also offered a radiant, finely sculpted account of Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto. 

Runnicles conducted the Boston Symphony (BSO) in a luminous performance of Leos Janacek’s Dvorak inflected Idyll and a spirited, characterful version of Elgar’s Enigma Variation which turned eloquent in the Nimrod adagio. On August 6 Runnicles also offered scintillating Mozart (the Symphony No.38) and a delightful traversal of Richard Strauss’s Suite from Der Rosenkavalier that was dipped in finely etched Vienesse schmaltz. He also offered stalwart support to pianist Lars Vogt’s exuberant reading of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. 

August 5 brought an emotionally wrought, powerful performance of Gustav Mahler’s moving Symphony No.2 (Resurrection). Former BSO Music Director Seiji Ozawa returned to his old podium for the first time since leaving in 2002. Although Ozawa has been ill recently, he directed an unforgettable performance that plumbed the agony and the ecstasy of Mahler’s musical rhetoric. Playing the slides between the notes and phrases of the second movement, the Boston strings sounded like those of the Vienna Philharmonic. (In his recent work at the Vienna State Opera, Ozawa has been imbued with that musical tradition.) The deep, golden voiced contralto of Nathalie Stutzmann, radiant soprano of Heidi Grant Murphy, and exquisite soft singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus contributed to a reading that was, at once, majestic, bracing, and imbued with terror. This performance was the work of one of the world’s great Mahler conductors!

Elliot Carter’s surrealist What Next was the featured work on an operatic triple bill on July 27. Carter, the grand old man of American music at age 97, ingenuously mixes atonality and lyricism in an engrossing, allegorical one actor. With James Levine providing mastery on the podium, standouts in the student cast included Kiera Duffy (a brilliant coloratura soprano), Chad Sloan (a big, buoyant baritone), Lawrence Jones (a strong Mahlerian tenor), and Jamie Van Eyck (the ultimate mezzo earth mother). Tanglewood Conducting Fellow Kazem Abdullah led a snappy, jazzy staging of Hindemith’s experimental There and Back. The light, airy soprano of Chanel Marie Wood and fine grained lyric tenor Anthony P. McGlaun commanded the stage. Tenor Brendan Daly was wonderfully acrobatic in the Baroque stanzas of the Bearded Sage. Stravinsky’s rhythmic; proto-Russian Mavra featured the clear, gleaming soprano of Emily Albrink and the firm, show stopping tenor voice of Randall Umstead. Nicolas Fink’s conducting was overloud and missed some of the Petrouchka like rhythmic and harmonic ironies of the score. All three works were given bright, energetic staging by Doug Fitch who also designed the modernist sets.

Sibelius’s rarely heard Luonnotar riveted attention at a concert of the student Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra on August 6. With high, awesome vocal writing wedded to a haunting, spare orchestral part, the score is unlike any other by this composer. Soprano Dawn Upshaw was simply magnificent. Silvery of timbre, passionate of utterance, Upshaw’s voice is a national treasure. (Upshaw is a fearless exponent of difficult contemporary repertoire and counts John Harbison, John Adams, and Osvaldo Golijov among the composers who have written works for her.) Conductor Stefan Asbury gave her eloquent support and led a glistening performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2 marked by sensuous strings and sparkling winds. Abdullah again impressed with a vigorous rendition of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. Soprano Jo Ellen Miller, a Tanglewood Fellow, elegantly scaled the high vocal line of Milton Babbitt’s bristling From the Psalter, capably conducted by Tomasz Golka. 

The 32 year old French conductor Ludovic Morlot proved to be a high energy dynamo on the BSO podium on July 28. With a clear, precise beat, his music making was both inspirational and introspective. Whether accompanying Andre Watts’s masterful performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, illuminating the misty impressionism of George Perle’s Transcendental modulations, or bringing feathery lightness to Berlioz’s Corsair Overture and Ravel’s La Valse, Morlot was a blazing leader – a major talent! 

In a feast of super charged fiddling, Gidon Kremer essayed all five of Mozart’s Violin Concertos with chamber music like precision and an awesome display of violinistic technique. The 5th Concerto had the dashing bravura of Heifetz! He also offered languid and fiery vignettes by Astor Piazzolla. Gil Shaham spun his molten tone down to the slenderest of threads in an eloquent, invigorating interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Midori offered exquisite pianissimos, romantic fervor, and devilish pyrotechnics in Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1. Conductor Hans Graf was a superb partner for Shaham and Midori. He also offered a lush perusal of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird and the perfect blend of romantic ardor and high spirits in Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony. Add the beautifully articulated, lyrically incisive cello playing of BSO member Owen Young in Dvorak’s gorgeous Silent Woods to the string marathon with the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Orchestra conducted fervently by James Gaffigan, Michael Tilson Thomas’s new assistant in San Francisco. Gaffigan also drew a sensuous performance of Salome’s Dance (from the Strauss opera) from the training ensemble. 

In the palatial splendor of Ventfort Hall at the Museum of the Gilded Age (one of Lenox’s historic mansions), mezzo-soprano Jennifer Berkebile unfurled a voluminous, opulent voice in a richly expressive performance of Respighi’s gorgeous Il Tramonto (The Sunset), supported by a string quartet from the Berkshire Opera Orchestra. In the Berkshires, the sounds of summer are glorious indeed!

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