Lenox, Mass. — Every once in awhile, we here at TheaterJones get an opportunity to travel and go to performances in far-flung places. We like to share our adventures with you.
First, let’s talk logistics.
The Boston Symphony’s summer home is at Tanglewood, on the western side of the state in the Berkshire Mountains. In this beautiful setting, the orchestra plays an extraordinary array of concerts all summer long. Tanglewood houses two performance venues, the Koussevitzky Shed, where the orchestra performs, and Ozawa Hall, where listeners can hear chamber and student performances. The Shed features folding chairs—they don’t have cushions, so bring your own or rent one at the venue if that sounds uncomfortable. There’s also lawn seating, so if it’s a pretty day you can sit outside and picnic while listening to the Boston Symphony.
My companion and I got to the Tanglewood campus a bit early, and had a picnic on the lawn before moving into our seats in the Shed. (Although signs in the Shed say “no food or drink,” they do not seem concerned about closed picnic bags and baskets being brought in.) For us, this was ideal. Sitting on the lawn seems like a fun time, but listeners will hear the music piped in through loudspeakers, and the musicians onstage must look like specks. Be aware that if you don’t have reserved parking, you may need to leave your car a considerable hike from the Shed. Comfortable shoes are a must, but dress is casual.
Know, too, that while Tanglewood is an easy two- to three-hour journey from Boston or New York City, getting there will require a car, and staying overnight can be expensive. What we chose was to attend a matinee performance. We left my companion’s home in Boston early Sunday morning, then stopped in Concord briefly and then in Amherst, where we toured Emily Dickinson’s home, a must-see for any lover of American letters. We were able to get to Tanglewood in ample time for the 2:30 concert. An evening concert would have meant an overnight stay in Lenox or a late evening drive back to Boston, but would have permitted, for example, a full tour of Louisa May Alcott’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Concord homes in the late morning, a visit to Amherst in the afternoon, and a picnic on the lawn before the Boston Symphony’s concert.
Now, the concert: hearing a new and different orchestra can be a revelation. While acoustics in the Shed are not ideal for making fine assessments, the Boston Symphony is as outstanding as one would expect. The Boston Symphony Orchestra program on Sunday, under the baton of Music Director Andris Nelsons, began with a World Premiere, John Williams’ “Markings,” for solo violin, strings, and harp, written for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. The piece is a violin concerto in miniature, a one-movement work that, while dominantly lyrical and introspective, does not seem to share much in common with Williams’ film scores. If we’re accustomed to thinking of Williams as a melodist—after all, many of us can probably hum more Williams tunes than tunes by virtually any other composer—then the distinctly unmelodic “Markings” will come as a surprise. It’s a virtuosic work which displayed Mutter’s unmatched technical and lyrical gifts. But it’s a work that on first hearing, at least, was not especially compelling.
Balancing out the world premiere were two relative warhorses: the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Mutter was again the featured soloist on the Tchaikovsky, and here, she demonstrated her well-earned reputation as one of the best violinists in the world. One of the challenges in performing a piece as well-known as the Tchaikovsky is maintaining fidelity to the music while at the same time incorporating a unique musical vision—making the music your own. Mutter used extensive rubato in the first movement to provide a sense of surprise (and she missed a shift or two, also, a frankly comforting reminder that this brilliant star of the violin world is, in fact, human). In the second movement, marked “Canzonetta,” Mutter created an astonishing sense of line, and in the third, she took off at a clip so fast that I wondered how she and the orchestra would maintain it—but maintain they did, to a finale so thrilling that after several curtain calls, she and the orchestra performed an encore, John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List.
The second half of the two-hour-plus program, the Berlioz, provided ample opportunity to evaluate the orchestra’s many strengths. The Latvian-born Nelsons has a distinctly relaxed conducting style, frequently leaning against the podium rail with an insouciance that belies the precision results he crafts. The orchestra, on the whole, was magnificent. Ensemble was precise, strings were tight, and lower brass were astonishing, especially in the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” in which the “Dies irae” is invoked ever so ominously. English horn Robert Sheena was another standout, with an extraordinary, rich tone.
Symphonie fantastique is essentially an over-the-top musical manifestation of Berlioz’s decidedly stalkerish love for the actress Harriet Smithson. As such, it can either be played straight, as a terrifying look into the madness that can evolve out of obsessive love, or, in this post-Romantic era, with a little bit of camp and an eye roll. The BSO and Nelsons chose the latter, to great effect. (Berlioz, however, was no doubt deadly serious. His composition was successful in the sense that he did convince Smithson to marry him, partly as a result of her hearing a performance of the Symphonie fantastique. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, Berlioz liked the idea of Smithson better than he liked the actual person, and the marriage was an unhappy one.)
Orchestras each have a personality, shaped not only by their music directors, but also by the individual players within. Nelsons and his orchestra seemed, at least on this hearing, to find that sweet spot where technical precision is a given, so the orchestra can let loose a bit with the music. I look forward to my next visit to Tanglewood, and also to hearing this orchestra in the better acoustics of Symphony Hall sometime soon. They’re worth the trip.