Thursday, 26 July 2007

Tanglewood Two/Too

cyntillating sounds opus ten

When the weather is sunny and the repertoire is Bach, Tanglewood exhurts its irresistible charm and we return within a week's time to a favoured landscape. But for this visit, we do it right, shunning real seats for a concert-from-the-lawn experience.

The scene in the parking lot hours before show time is unique. Most visitors are elderly this evening, Bach's B Minor Mass is considered heavy going by Americans. They may be elderly but they are certainly routined in Tanglewood traditions: the gas guzzling 4 wheel drives pull up close, and out come the lawn chairs, the wine bottles, the pasta salads and good French bread (Tanglewood attracts a good number of French Canadians). Those arriving early just fold out their chairs right smack in front of the ticket gate, pour a glass, perhaps read a book (we saw St. Augustine's Confessions lying on a nearby chair) and wait at least an hour to stake their claim to a good spot on the lawn.

We share our picnic table with strangers, united in a love of Bach.
He: ' is it a singalong tonight?'; she: ' I hope not!' .
Volunteers pass out not only programmes but brochures on this season's Dutch theme, a celebration of Holland's musical best and brightest. Like this evening, Jos van Veldhoven and his Netherlands Bach Society, on a return visit after their recent, exceptionally succesful tour to the States in April.

The performance is in the elegant Ozawa Recital Hall which looses it's back wall just prior to performances, to allow a view from the lawn on a par with the main shed where the symphonic concerts take place. But this visitor's dream is, of course, an instrumentalist's nightmare, and the harpsichordist and string players arrive early to tune, tune and yet tune again.

Van Veldhoven leads a magnificent performance, one very much in tune, using a parred down choir of a mere ten voices - often beefed up by the five soloists -, which never sounds skinny or disappointing. The Bach is rich, inventive and inspired, even from our seats half way up the long lawn. Again, the sound system is excellent, 'pimped up' via speakers barely visible in the trees: we have a front row seat feeling, with the added spectacle of the stars and a three quarter moon above us. Breathtaking.

At the end, a class of students leaves in a famous American yellow school bus, younger children are carried home in their sleeping bags, we pack up our empty bottles and books and fold away our lawn chairs after a very special evening of excellent performance in a perfect place.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007


cyntillating sounds opus nine

The road to take from Boston to their symphony's summer home in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains is the Massachusetts Turnpike, beautiful but habitually clogged with trailers, campers, and most certainly, classical music lovers. We prefer the long and winding Route 20 West, a scenic thread through picturesque colonial towns with unexpected names like Dalton, Chester, even Peru.

The Tanglewood music festival has attracted thousands of visitors every summer since its first season in 1937, and that is literally thousands, 300 thousand in 2006. An average symphonic concert is attended by 15 thousand, 5 of which are lucky to have a roof over their heads, the others taking their chances with New England weather. But when that is glorious, as it often is in the summer, the heavens add their own sparkle to performances; Tanglewood's lawns are halfway up the Berkshires, far from annoying city lights, dark, dsitinguished, with breathtaking views.

This past weekend, the BSO had an all Beethoven programme scheduled featuring a stunning series of soloists which included the Beaux Arts Trio and soprano Christine Brewer. On Saturday afternoon, this working man's Glyndebourne is already packed, the lawns are dressed out early for pre-concert extended picnics: candles, flowers, wine galore and masses of finger food. We saw a baby no older than a month, and many easily in their nineties. All camped out for a concert they could not hope to see, but could certainly hear through a marvelous sound system that can deck even the farthest corners of the lawns.

Here Bostonians meet New Yorkers as Tanglewood is strategically centered in between these two major cultural centers. The festival itself has attracted other arts institutions over the years, most famously Jacob's Pillow, the dance phenomenon, making the Berkshire mountains the thinking American's camp site par none.

Tonight we happen to have real seats; elderly volunteers assist us in finding them with grace. The symphony orchestra looks like it has huge numbers of new players; considering the performance in hindsight, we can only conclude that these are all remplacants, filling in for vacationing soloists. The Beethoven heard was certainly not up to BSO standard with its messy woodwinds and slouchy strings. Hans Graf was a pleasure to watch, but even simple down beats were never together, let stand powerfully so as Beethoven rightfully deserves.

After a terribly disappointing Leonore Ouverture, things took a marvelous turn for the better: out marched the venerable Beaux Arts Trio with its nestor pianist Menahem Pressler looking as eager as ever. Cellist's Antonio Meneses first phrase immediately set the stage for a gutsy, powerful and elegant performance of Beethoven's unwieldly Triple Concerto. The musicians were obviously having a grand time performing one of their standards to the huge crowd who had welcomed their mere appearance with bravo saldos. And Pressler, the pianist with the pearly touch, perfectly rounded out violinist's Daniel Hope's bravura and Meneses' stunning sound. Grand festival fun.

The second half began with a truly marvelous Ah! Perfido, Beethoven's dramatic concert aria performed to perfection by Christine Brewer. Simply gorgeous, and enough of a thrill to carry us through the uninspired second symphony that followed. Amazing programming actually, following up a triple concerto with yet another major soloist. But then again, the Boston Symphony has the cash to back it up: Tanglewood alone brings in over 50 million dollars a season to this well-endowed and well-run American arts institution, and we, on this New England summer evening, star-studded on both the stage and in the heavens, were determined to return soon.