Behind The Scenes at Tanglewood – the 75th Anniversary Season


                                                                                                                                                 August, 2012


“The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place.” Author Colm Toibin, writing in The New York Times, 7/15/2012.

Colm Toibin’s description about the sustaining power of creating a work of fiction applies equally to the mysterious power that music has upon the human spirit. The subtle, artful manipulation of cadence and rhythm in a live musical performance has the ability to profoundly stir the human heart and imagination. Such was clearly the case on this special morning at Tanglewood where closed rehearsals were taking place in preparation for the evening’s concert to celebrate Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary season. (The evening gala concert would see a record set for attendance and funds raised for Tanglewood – the most in its storied history. For a complete listing of other concerts and special events this summer, including weekly downloads of historic performances from Tanglewood, go to On this early morning walk, however, the crowds had yet to be allowed onto the grounds and there was barely a sound to be heard, apart from the calls from several blue jays in the surrounding majestic pines. Listening carefully, one could hear a cacophonous debate going on between these birds and the sounds from a distant piano, wafted through the still morning air. Indeed, an intrepid early rising pianist was practicing a piano run far off in one of Tanglewood’s idyllic practice sheds. Listening carefully through the breeze, you could hear this pianist practicing this bombastic run again and again. It sounded like this section was taken from an obtuse Hindemith composition; quite appropriate on this 75th gala concert morning since Hindemith himself was a leading faculty member at the Tanglewood Music Center (“TMC”) in the 1940’s.

While this debate between Hindemith’s icy proclamations and the blue jays’ rebuttals raged outside on the lawn, rehearsals were taking place inside Tanglewood’s famed Koussevitzky Shed (the “Shed”) for the evening’s program. On stage, (in front of only a handful of musicians and friends in the audience), the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was rehearsing Ravel’s choreographic poem, “La Valse” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (“BSO”). The vivacious Nelsons was drenched in sweat; his shirt soaked through and his black dangling hair dripping in perspiration. The BSO was attired in their informal Berkshires best, (tee shirts and Sox baseball caps), trying to keep up with their frenetic dance partner conducting from the podium. Following Nelsons’ lead, the orchestra achieved a surging uplift that sashayed forth, (like a thunderous wave of sound), upon the foundation of Ravel’s great waltzing cadence. The sound of the orchestra was like a huge bell ringing in a swaying breeze: clear, brazen and spectacular in width and volume. Nelsons’ whole body swayed downwards (as if bodysurfing to capture the swell of a waltzing wave) and then rose upwards to his tiptoes to ride the crescendo of the string’s opulent rhythmic sweep. At the conclusion of the rehearsed section, Nelsons addressed the string and brass sections and requested that they “dig deeper” into the funnel of Ravel’s big waltzing waves. To make his point further, he playfully sung a short section of the melody demonstrating the precise point where he wanted the strings to emphasize their bowing with deeper undulation and gravitas. They responded by repeating the section with renewed vigor and emphasis to the dip in Ravel’s sweeping waltz. Nelsons responded by bobbing and weaving amongst the waves of sound cascading through the cavernous space of the Shed, delighting in that glorious golden BSO string tone that brought a wide grin to his youthful face.

Following the rehearsal of the Ravel, Nelsons left the podium and was succeeded by the affable David Zinman, who immediately launched into jovial conversation with members of the BSO and members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus behind him. Zinman has an illustrious and long history of conducting the BSO and their affection for him was clearly palpable at this informal rehearsal. Although far less of a physical presence on the podium than Nelsons, Zinman brings his own inspiration to the artful manipulation of those mysterious and sustaining powers of rhythm and cadence, as author Toibin refers. With his economy of gestures, Zinman can coax a delectable winsome line from the low basses, just with a slight curlicue of a raised finger. Before Zinman began his part of the rehearsal, pianist extraordinaire Peter Serkin, (looking informal and dapper at the same time in a beige suit with camping shoes) came onto the stage. Serkin waved to friends in the audience and then took his seat at the Steinway, launching into his first probing notes to ignite Beethoven’s “Fantasia in C minor” –The Choral Fantasy. Serkin’s solo to begin this piece was so tender, so soft and full of defiant passion that he almost made one forget that he was playing a mechanical instrument. It was as if he had direct hand contact with the piano’s strings, so full of lightness and stormy darkness was his touch. An example of this was later on in the composition where Beethoven scored an impossibly long piano trill that lasts several minutes, sustained on two high piano notes. It was amazing to hear how much color and texture Serkin mined in this isolated trill between just two keys. Here was sunshine and rain; lightness and darkness; all wrapped up in a spill of sound between two high, quivering notes. Behind Serkin, the Tanglewood Chorus produced an effortless, polished sound that thundered into the airy acoustic space of the Shed and beyond into the Hills. At one point, Zinman instructed for the orchestra to pay close attention to a particular section where he wanted the woodwinds and horn sections to enter more resolutely, with more drama and precision, to announce the introduction of Beethoven’s striving march theme. They practiced this section a few times getting the urgency of their entrance just right, with Serkin working on his own subdued entry to join with the orchestra in the stirring section to follow.

In listening to this rehearsal of the Beethoven, I was reminded of the superb recent recording done by the Orchestre Symphonique De Montreal under the direction of Kent Nagano, performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 [disc entitled Beethoven In The Breath of Time on the orchestra’s “OSM” label]. On this particular recording, Nagano pushes the tempo of Beethoven’s creation into what he calls “an incessant forward movement” and in so doing, captures a nice slice of this same exuberance, fervor and rhythmic intensity that was heard in rehearsal of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy at the Shed. Serkin’s relaxed, plainsong complexity in his playing of the Beethoven also reminded me of the radiant playing of the young pianist, Yuja Wang, captured on her vivacious recording with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing the music of Rachmaninov. Here is another super recording (the capture of the acoustic space is most impressive) that snares all of the dramatic tension and drama of this music with Wang displaying a piano touch which can be both graceful and tigerish in the same phrase. Wang too has a way of making her piano sing in the most natural way, letting the drama unfold naturally within a flowing velvety line or a pugilistic attack.

Back at the morning rehearsal at the Shed, another gifted master of drama and song- violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter- made her stylish way to the stage to join the musicians of the TMC Orchestra in a rehearsal of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra. For this piece, conductor Andris Nelsons returned to the rehearsal stage and joined Mutter in this Herculean virtuoso showpiece. Several times during the rehearsal, Nelsons and Mutter stopped to re-work certain passages to insure that the changes of mood and tempo were as they envisioned. For instance, at one point, Mutter turned to the violins and discussed how she wished for them to play with “more air”- that way, achieving more “spike” and more percussive pizzicatos to herald her prickly Spanish dances up and down her instrument. At another point, Nelsons discussed with the cellos and basses how he wished for them to play a certain section with more body and punctuated weight in the background of Mutter’s serendipitous serenades. Nelsons gave the example of trying to jump from your legs only, without the full weight of your core and chest (“That hurts your knees!”). Rather, he wanted to hear the cellos uplift using the full weight and breath of their instruments making the triads they played more augmented and tonally resonant. The drama and evolution of sound continued and included a beautiful section where Mutter played with great fragility up high, cushioned by only a lone crack of a drumstick in a Spanish dance motif. Mutter’s tone was delectably fleet and nimble in this pyrotechnical feast; her jolts of surprise in shifts of meter were sharp shined and sparkling. Her commanding technique brought to mind another stellar recording: Samuel Barber’s achingly beautiful Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, performed by Hilary Hahn and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Hugh Wolff [Sony]. If you listen to the final movement of the Barber piece (with its serpentine meter changes and frenetic cadences and violin runs) you’ll get a sense of the emotional depth and technical drama that Mutter and the TMC achieved on the Sarasate in rehearsal at the Shed that morning. (Vinyl fans: find a copy of violinist extraordinaire Ruggiero Ricci’s Virtuoso Showpieces [London STS Series 15049] and listen to his Sarasate. It is a marvel of invention and you can hear how Ricci’s makes his violin sound like a castanet with all of its wooden body and textile snap which only vinyl can provide). On a final note, the true glory of this rehearsal by Mutter and the TMC was heard in the way the talented young musicians of the TMC followed Mutter in her every dance step; listening intently to each of her inflections and dynamic shadings; and finally, folding their own musical lines around Mutter to cushion her in a playful and secure embrace.

And speaking of embrace, the final musician to grace the Shed’s stage in this morning rehearsal was the infectious James Taylor (“JT”), an artist who has long been associated with Tanglewood. In rehearsal, JT showed that he still possesses that uncanny and stunning gift for embracing the emotional heft and essence of any given song; like a hand fitting neatly into a velvet glove. Upon entering the Shed, JT took to the stage in his leisurely gaid and trademark hat and greeted conductor and composer John Williams and members of the Boston Pops Orchestra (who were to join him in the evening concert). They immediately fell into a convivial rehearsal session, meticulously working through the planned song selections from Arlen & Harburg (“Over The Rainbow”); Rodgers & Hammerstein (“Shall We Dance?”) and Kern & Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River”. JT was effusive in rehearsal, wanting to get things just right. He requested sections of songs be practiced several times, apologizing at times for his late vocal entries and articulating the spaces in the songs where he thought he could “catch my breath and dig deep.” It was fun to hear the friendly quips back and forth between JT and Williams as they rehearsed. At one point, Williams admonished JT to “keep your eyes on me!” and enhanced his hand gestures on the podium so that JT would be able to be clued in as to when he should make a vocal entry. However, despite Williams’ instructions, as soon as JT began singing he’d routinely close his eyes or look out into the Shed’s empty rows of seats and fail to watch Williams, who was gesturing (now a bit frantically) trying to get JT’s attention. These comic moments aside, the music that evolved and emerged was soulful and stirring. The highlight of the rehearsal was hearing JT sing “Ol’ Man River” (“I hope the low notes are still there at 8 P.M. this evening!”) with JT naturally inhabiting the plain spoken narration of this classic ballad with his consummate phrasing, soft tonal palette and that easygoing soulfulness which makes his voice so distinct. Those same qualities can, of course, be heard on classic albums by JT, including his eclectic recording, Mud Slide Slim, now beautifully re-mastered on disc on the Audio Fidelity label ( I have highlighted in the past how the team at Audio Fidelity has succeeded in bringing old rock classics to vivid life on their vinyl and CD releases. In this same vein, AF’s release of Mud Slide Slim [AFZ 128] mines those master tapes for every nook and cranny of JT’s vocal and instrumental prowess, and lays bare the natural acoustic within which he and his band deliver such delectable tales of the road as “Riding On A Railroad,” the stark, glowing gem of “Isn’t It Nice To Be Home Again” and that comic meeting with “Machine Gun Kelly” as only JT can tell it.

As the rehearsal in the Shed wound down, JT leaned away from his microphone on the concluding chorus of O’l Man River (“I’m tired of living and scared of dying”) and belted out a torrent of stately vocals that seemed to decay far off into the vastness of Tanglewood’s leafy grounds, beckoning us to join JT’s river (and Tanglewood) rolling onwards into its glorious future.

Stay tuned for more reports from the celebrations at Tanglewood 75!

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