Three kinds of music were heard at Tanglewood during the weekend. The Boston Symphony Orchestra presented classical concerts in the Koussevitzky Music Shed Saturday and Sunday; the Boston Pops under Keith Lockhart performed there Friday, and the annual Festival of Contemporary Music got under way with four concerts in the small halls.
Audience expectations of the classical music experience are clear: Choose a concert, buy seats and sit in the Shed to listen closely, or perhaps picnic quietly on the spacious lawn, watching big screens or stargazing. Pops is something like that but listening takes less brain power, and Americans insecure about mouthing off on Beethoven feel on firm ground expressing opinions of homegrown pop and rock tunes.
The top-priced Tanglewood ticket is not classical but pops. The lowball price — $11 (cheaper than the lawn) — is for new-music concerts, where there are plenty of extra seats even though members are welcomed at no charge. Again the Irish flutist James Galway’s comment about new-music audiences comes to mind: “I’m beginnin’ ta believe ye’ll hafta pay them.”
New-music and pops audiences share an interest in what’s up-to-the-minute. The pops industry is built around stars singing songs they write in their 15 minutes of fame. Fans can’t wait for the latest single by Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney. But time ages new music, and if it’s good, it enters mainstream repertory.
Ninety years ago Prokofiev (composer of “Peter and the Wolf”) was accused of writing harsh dissonances, grotesque harmonies, “unseemly” music. Now his “Classical” symphony, played by the Boston Symphony Saturday night, is a backward-looking bauble. Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos took it seriously, giving its brief movements nice weight and placing it as an overture to Orff’s immensely popular 1937 oratorio, “Carmina Burana.”
Sunday’s concert was a fine illustration of several things: first, that assistant conductor Julian Kuerti is prepared, loves his work, and is already making a name for himself; second, that concertgoers will pay to hear a cello concerto by Shostakovich (whose music James Levine routinely delegates to others) and will leap to their feet if Yo-Yo Ma plays it; third, that preceding the concerto (composed for Rostropovich, who played it here in 1988) with a work by George Perle, a Tanglewood regular who died last winter at 93, made Shostakovich’s traditional movement structures, simple tonality and long melodic lines feel more comforting than if the concert had begun with Mozart.
Perle complained in a 1983 interview that he didn’t like musicologists calling his style “accessible.” (Not that it seemed so then.) Sunday afternoon, his compact 1990 “Sinfonietta II” sounded elegant: spare, short-breathed string phrases governed a large orchestra whose instruments, from lightly struck timpani to glittering vibraphones, emerged in a solo context.
At least that’s how it sounded to ears that in the past three days had heard three Festival of Contemporary Music concerts of chamber works from the recent years. Those who missed those concerts were baffled by Perle, but relieved when Ma came onstage to perform what suddenly felt like good old Shostakovich from 30 years earlier. Thus the axiom of fans of new music: “If we don’t have a present we won’t have a past.”
So into Ozawa Hall we will go, for the remaining contemporary concerts today and Tuesday. It’s a luxury to have talented fellows and faculty available for intensive rehearsals — orchestras don’t have that kind of preparation time. Most of the pieces won’t be heard for a while, unless it’s that brand new string quartet by C.L. Wong, commissioned by Tanglewood and the prestigious Paul Jacobs Memorial Fund. It stayed within norms but pushed them carefully outward with many speeds and figures.
Or maybe Paula Matthusen’s poignant 2006 “of memory and minutiae,” for soprano, cello and electronics, depicting her religious Norwegian grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s.
If other pieces are less rewarding, there’s the food stand, open through intermission today. For Tuesday night’s recital by the English pianist Nicolas Hodges, music better be the food, or else a pocketful of chocolate.