Tanglewood is an outdoor concert venue in Lenox, MA, the traditional summer home of The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival. This is a lovely garden spot for picnicking while listening to great music in the Berkshires. A few weeks ago Kat and I were lucky enough to witness a 10:30 a.m. full rehearsal of a performance to come later that evening.
This is Vladimir Ashkenazy in the days of the Beatles performing the third and final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3. The band is known as the London Philharmonic conducted in this recording by another great maestro, Bernard Haitink.
Stephanie noticed that the BSO had resumed live performances with quite a lot of social distancing. She purchased a block of four tickets near the front of The Shed, Tanglewood’s roof without walls over a few thousand wooden chairs bolted onto dirt floor. The program offered 3 orchestral pieces opening with a new classical piece Jeder Baum spricht, (“every tree speaks”) modernist music inspired by a sketchbook note written by Beethoven to his 6th Symphony the Pastorale. Generally I care little for 20th or 21st century “classical” compositions, but this one was accessible and melodic, free of dissonance and themed on one of the foremost problems of 21st century life, catastrophic climate change. Steph and Sam were pleased to learn that the composer was about their age, actually a bit younger. Sam noted that the composer approached the conductor after the performance and requested the conductor make some minor changes in a couple of sections in the performance of his creation. Those measures were immediately re-played with differences so subtle that few of us noticed. And then the conductor turned to the composer, palms up and a questioning expression … “Is that better?” “Yes, thank you.”
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3 featured pianist Yefim Bronfman, a major name on the piano circuit who dazzled us with his precise technique and imaginative interpretation of the soloist’s side of the concerto. For this piece the orchestra was heavy on brasses and strings, and unusual in the use of the timpani to duet here and there with Bronfman’s piano. This was familiar music for me, putting a smile on my face and I think, Stephanie’s: it awakened her and Bret for school on many mornings (but I had about 100 favorites to choose from – no monotony in our house).
Robert Schumann Symphony #4 concluded the rehearsal. Although I was not familiar with it, this is music of a time in history that forms the heart of what most consider “classical music”, and the BSO presented it beautifully. Andris Nelsons, their Ray & Maria Music Director conducted. He also serves as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig, one of perhaps a half dozen of the world’s greatest symphonic orchestras. One of my very favorite conductors (along with fellow departed legends Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan), Kurt Mazur preceded Nelsons by less than a decade at Gewandhaus. Andris Nelsons now carries the torch.
Conductors lead the orchestra, and their interpretations of tempo, emphasis on instrument sections, and dynamic contrast drive the modest differences in classical performances. Pay scales and the talent of the players make up most of the rest. Does a $1,000,000 violin sound better than a $100,000 one? Perhaps. And one does not become conductor of a major symphonic orchestra without a high degree of self-esteem, generally well deserved and hard-earned. I will conclude this with a von Karajan story. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for many years and passed away in 1989. But his legendary ego remains unsurpassed. The story goes like this:
He hailed a cab after a rehearsal, and when asked “Where to, Mister?” The imperious one snorted “I am von Karajan. It matters not. My public wants me everywhere!”