by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012
It is said that Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian-Jewish émigré who led the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, had trouble reading complex new scores. He wallowed in sentiment, Stravinsky complained. He was imperious, sometimes cruel. Nonetheless, he elicited performances of voluptuous intensity— “Such a bad conductor, and the orchestra plays so well,” Toscanini supposedly said—and when he died, in 1951, he left behind a vital legacy. One of the architects of the modern repertory, Koussevitzky introduced or commissioned hundreds of works, including Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” and Messiaen’s “Turangalîla Symphony.” He was a father figure for Aaron Copland and other American composers, saying, “Dee next Beethoven vill from Colorado come.” And in the Tanglewood festival, the Boston Symphony’s summertime home in the Berkshires, Koussevitzky created a singular institution that combines an élite music school with a populist open-air series. If conductors are judged not as metrical disciplinarians but as shapers of musical life, Koussevitzky might have been the greatest of them all.
Tanglewood—the name comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who once lived on the grounds—celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in July. It emerged from the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, which originally offered the New York Philharmonic as its main attraction. Gertrude Robinson Smith, a formidable local philanthropist who campaigned for women’s welfare and reportedly threw a mean curveball, was the festival’s leading patron, and when the Philharmonic lost interest Smith turned instead to Koussevitzky, who seized on her notion that the enterprise could become an American version of the Salzburg Festival. Indeed, Koussevitzky imagined something better: low-priced, high-calibre concerts around which composers, conductors, performers, and scholars would gather to train the next generation. Tanglewood would be, in Koussevitzky’s words, a “radiation of the beams of high culture over a nation and the whole world.”
This Emersonian utopia never fully materialized. One setback came when the Boston Symphony’s board rejected Leon-ard Bernstein, Koussevitzky’s protégé, as his successor, instead choosing the more manageable French maestro Charles Munch. The Munch years hardly lacked for brilliant playing or lively programs, and Seiji Ozawa, who arrived in 1973, after briefer tenures by Erich Leinsdorf and William Steinberg, further expanded Tanglewood’s scope. There was a sense, though, that the Koussevitzky ideal was fading. In 1979, the composer Gunther Schuller, then the co-director of Tanglewood’s education wing, declared that the typical American orchestra had become a soulless mechanism, hostile to creativity. “The light has gone out of their eyes,” Schuller said of the musicians. Although he avoided naming names, Boston seemed to be his chief exhibit. Ozawa stayed until 2002, his later years marred by uneven performances and by unrest among the Tanglewood faculty. There ensued the short, sad reign of James Levine: aglow with promise for the first couple of years, then increasingly fretful as Levine’s health problems took him away for long stretches.
Last year, Levine belatedly resigned, leaving an artistic vacuum. Uncertainty shadowed the anniversary gala, at which Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, and James Taylor took turns in the spotlight, with seventeen thousand spectators filling the Music Shed and the lawn outside. The search for Levine’s successor is ongoing: the job is a huge one, requiring charisma, imagination, and organizational flair in equal measure. The fact that no clear-cut candidate has appeared should not stop the orchestra from taking a chance on a relative unknown. Who could have guessed, after all, that an émigré double-bass player turned conductor would make so much of a soggy farm in the Berkshires? ￼￼￼￼
One conductor receiving close scrutiny in Boston is the thirty-three-year-old Latvian maestro Andris Nelsons, who is presently the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony, in England. Nelsons had his first outing with the Bostonians in March, 2011, at Carnegie Hall, substituting on short notice for Levine. I missed that concert, but caught Nelsons’s commanding New York Philharmonic début, one month earlier, and also saw him at the 2011 Bayreuth Festival, where he delivered a blazing “Lohengrin.” Evidently, the Carnegie concert pleased the management in Boston, for Nelsons was invited to serve as one of the three conductors at the Tanglewood gala, on July 14th. The following afternoon, he had his first scheduled program with the orchestra: the “Symphony of Psalms” and Brahms’s Second Symphony.
It went extremely well. In the “Psalms,” Nelsons found the right balance between otherworldly serenity and earthy vigor: the winds in the second Psalm were flawlessly blended yet pungent in timbre, and the movement’s penitential mood (“He brought me up also out of an horrible pit”) came through in finely managed swells of dynamics and emotion. The Brahms was spacious, almost Wagnerian in places, with thematic lines singing out grandly and rhythms surging underneath. In the finale, electricity flickered through the ensemble as Nelsons pushed the tempo and punched up dynamic contrasts. The final bars were a controlled explosion.
Nelsons is fascinating to watch. His arm shoots out, then freezes; he looms over the front-chair strings, then falls into a simian crouch; he sways this way and that, audibly grunting. There is no showmanship in these gestures; rather, they seem an expression of an unchecked, visceral approach to music-making, and they keep the players productively on edge. Such physicality is, not incidentally, a Koussevitzky trait: the old man advocated “bodily freedom” in performance. Whether Nelsons possesses anything like Koussevitzky’s genius for cultivating composers or building institutions remains to be seen. For the moment, he has chosen to renew his commitment to Birmingham, but more Boston dates lie ahead.
Another possible candidate is Stéphane Denève, a vigorous Frenchman who made his début in Boston last year. On August 11th, at Tanglewood, he led a fluffy new piece by André Previn (“Music for Boston”), Elgar’s Cello Concerto (with Yo-Yo Ma), and the Shostakovich Fifth. The orchestra responded energetically, but Denève’s take on the Shostakovich seldom went very deep and ended in disconcertingly blatant fashion. Nelsons had the better showing: under his baton, the august Bostonians sounded as alert and alive as they did when Levine first arrived.
In the Koussevitzky days, new works mingled with established masterpieces; there was no contemporary ghetto. Then, in 1964, Tanglewood launched an annual Festival of Contemporary Music. Schuller, that pugnacious polymath who introduced the concept of a “Third Stream” between classical composition and modern jazz, headed new-music activities at Tanglewood from 1964 to 1984, and in the late sixties he added a pop dimension, booking Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Who. Now eighty-six, Schuller revisited Tanglewood this summer, offering a new orchestral piece and leading an all-Charles Ives program with student musicians. Last year, he brought out “A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty,” the first volume of his memoirs, describing his encounters with everyone from Toscanini to Duke Ellington in thrilling and exhausting detail.
Curiously, while Schuller has lavished analytical attention on richly tonal jazz harmonies, he has shown little appetite for the equivalent in the modern classical sphere. When he ran the contemporary festival at Tanglewood, there were complaints that it turned into a private conference of university atonalists. The stylistic gamut widened somewhat in the late eighties and in the nineties, when Oliver Knussen and Reinbert de Leeuw served, consecutively, as directors of the contemporary series; I attended a vibrant edition in 1994, at which hard-rocking Bang on a Can pieces abutted surrealistic provocations by Mauricio Kagel and atonal edicts by Ralph Shapey. Knussen returned to lead this summer’s festival-within-a-festival, declaring another ceasefire in the style wars: David Del Tredici’s over-the-top neo-Romanticism shared a bill with the granite sonorities of Harrison Birtwistle. Knussen’s 1985 opera “Higglety Pigglety Pop!,” heard here in a semi-staged version, embodied a pragmatic ideal, its dizzyingly varied compositional resources placed at the service of Maurice Sendak’s bittersweet canine tale.
Knussen’s programs, concentrating on British and American composers of several generations, emphasized craftsmanship above all. (I saw four out of six concerts.) The fifty-two-year-old English master George Benjamin, who in some periods of his career has been immaculate to a fault, was represented by three pieces from the past decade, including “Duet,” a finely chiselled, dark-hued concerto for piano and orchestra; it foreshadows the imaginative boldness of Benjamin’s first full-length opera, “Written on Skin,” which had its première at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, in July. (I watched a Webcast at Medici.tv.) Two composers in their early thirties, Sean Shepherd and Helen Grime, were not unlike Benjamin in the way they navigated between shimmering textures and lucid melodic lines. I was particularly taken with Grime’s “Seven Pierrot Miniatures,” whose plainspoken central motif could have come from Britten. The wild card was “Inverno In-Ver,” by Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-96); his antic, surrealist sensibility resembles the later style of György Ligeti, though without the formal assurance.
In some ways, the youngest-sounding composer was Schuller, whose “Dreamscape” is an eleven-minute romp. It begins with a nose-thumbing Ivesian scherzo, replete with wayward military fanfares, a mangled “Nutcracker” quotation, and yelps from the musicians. (A clarinettist yells, “No!”) A dreamlike nocturne follows, giving way to a compressed finale that escalates from nebulous low-string chords to apocalyptic brass flourishes. The extravagance of the conception is of a piece with Schuller’s more extended statements of recent years, notably “Where the Word Ends,” which Boston played in 2009. There is nothing studied in Schuller’s late-period work, and this is a good thing: he unleashes swinging choirs of horns, locomotive ostinatos, cascades of rapid figuration à la Richard Strauss. Schuller is still following twelve-tone procedures, but thinks nothing of settling on a plush C-major chord.
The Festival of Contemporary Music brought forth many memorable performances by students at the Tanglewood Music Center, as Koussevitzky’s summer academy is called. At 10 A.M. on a Sunday, a trio of oboists—Paul Lueders, Angela Limoncelli, and Graham Mackenzie— joined the harpist Grace Browning to give a starkly beautiful account of Birtwistle’s instrumental fragment “Dinah and Nick’s Love Song”; within a minute, morning had turned to midnight. Kate Jackman touchingly incarnated Jennie, Sendak’s beloved terrier, in “Higglety.” At the final concert, nearly a hundred young musicians filled the stage, revelling in Schuller’s dissonances and in the ripe tonalities of Del Tredici’s “Happy Voices.” They played, you could say, with light in their eyes.