Tanglewood back stories, front and center
One more time: the Boston Symphony Orchestra is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its first concerts on the Tanglewood grounds. Historical connections make the stories behind last weekend’s three concerts more interesting than reviews.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade (after Plato’s ‘Symposium’)” for violin, string orchestra, harp and percussion, heard Friday and followed by Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, replicated a memorable concert not even mentioned in the program notes, although it was the reason for repeating it: conducting on that sleepy day in 1986 was the composer himself -- a member of the inaugural 1940 Berkshire Music Center class who had grown into a Tanglewood icon, worshiped at his annual visits like a rock star. Midori, then a 14-year-old prodigy playing a 3/4 size instrument, was sailing through “Serenade” until a string broke.
When that happens, the soloist exchanges violins with the concertmaster, who passes the violin to the back for restringing, and takes a colleague’s. This time, though, the pint-sized virtuoso had to adjust instantly to a full-sized instrument.
Which she did, eloquently, until that one broke a string too. Bernstein, seeing that Midori was game to go on, kept his arms held in the air to silence the audience, watching her under his arm like a mother bird, while the associate principal handed over his (full-size) violin, others were passed around, and Midori snapped on her tiny chin-rest.
A New York Times critic wrote it up breathlessly (click HERE).
That incident might not have been life-changing, had anything at all been happening in the world that weekend -- which there apparently wasn’t, because the Times placed the string story on page 1.
That did it: the next day Midori found herself an internationally sought-after personality with everything but a book deal. The permanent effect on her career was actually a tribute to the power of the printed word -- which could make critics today weepy and nostalgic.
So last Friday’s reprise, led by Christoph Eschenbach, with soloist Dan Zhu, was probably fine, but little could overtake the memory of the broken strings.
The back story of Saturday’s concert is weather-related: on August 12, 1937, the Orchestra began an all-Wagner program in a tent at Tanglewood, its newly donated estate. A spectacular thunderstorm disrupted the concert, giving meaning to the term “drown out.” Noise plus rain (threatening to soak valuable instruments) sent well-dressed donors and musicians fleeing, and gave news photographers some choice shots for the next day’s papers.
Gertrude Robinson Smith, who had arranged the gift of the property, immediately began raising funds for what became the Koussevitzky Music Shed -– where Saturday’s replication of the 2 ½ -hour program was triumphantly concluded, 75 years later, under calm skies.
It is worth noting that all-Wagner opera music without singers is probably unique for the Boston Symphony. It rose magnificently to the occasion, its expanded forces led by Tanglewood newcomer Asher Fisch, principal guest conductor of the Seattle Opera (where productions of Wagner’s Ring cycle take over the city). Fisch is from Israel, which is still battling about whether the anti-Semitic composer's works should be heard at all, let alone in that country.
The orchestra, with yummy brass and percussion, responded heartily to Fisch, who is strong, solid, knowledgeable and exacting –- a good choice to complete a project 75 years in the making.
Sunday’s all-Mozart program was a father-son act: not Leopold and Amadeus, but the venerated conductor Kurt Masur and his son, Ken-David, a conductor who is a fellow here for the second summer. Nepotist blackmail? Not at all. Masur, 85, had not only cancelled his February appearance with the Boston for health reasons, but withdrawn from other engagements after a fall from a Paris podium in April. It wasn’t looking good for Tanglewood, until the administration offered him the chance to relieve the strain of a full concert, plus give his son a boost. A brilliant idea: the young man, who had done pretty well on his audition for assistant conductor, is musical and if over-mannered, can be excused for nerves.
The elder Masur, frail only in body, was in complete charge of the Linz Symphony, which was clean and stirring. Watching him brought memories of Pierre Monteux at that age, able to control the orchestra with what looked like one eyeball. There’s no substitute for a lifetime of smart experience, and the audience, which stood when Masur came slowly onstage, sprang up with noisy enthusiasm when the symphony concluded.
In photos: (top) Asher Fisch leads the BSO in an all-Wagner program Saturday night. (bottom) Kurt Masur of the BSO. Photos by Hilary Scott.