Arts Review

A Summer of Music Festivals

Since at least the nineteenth century, summers have been a time for musicians and composers to escape the urban grind and to tap back into their inner springs of creativity in the salubrious environs of the mountains, seaside, lake country, or forest. Brahms, for example, did much of the work on the E-flat Major and F Minor Sonatas for clarinet and piano while on summer retreat at the spa town of Bad Ischl. Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 was finished in Baden as the composer strove to recover from a serious intestinal disease. Gabriel Fauré’s Trio in D minor, Op. 120, similarly, was principally written at the resort of Annecy-le-Vieux in Southeastern France. With the rise of American orchestras and conservatories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, classical music summer retreats and festivals began to pepper the tapestry of the American summer. For example, the chamber music festival and school Kneisel Hall has roots going back to the first decade of the twentieth century, when Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) concertmaster Franz Kneisel began to bring students up to his summer house in Blue Hill, Maine. The BSO performed its first concert in the Berkshires in the 1930s; since then, its summer home has been at Tanglewood. Today, summer festivals and schools have become essential parts of young musicians’ training and a time during the year when professional musicians can concentrate “on the music alone,” away from the mundane concerns of their principal jobs. Summer music festivals have also become beloved home-away-from-homes for avid music lovers. For audiences, they often combine beautiful natural surroundings with the opportunity to hear musicians at their (one hopes) most artistically inspired. Last summer I made my way to several summer music festivals in the Northeast, new and old, to see and hear what was on offer.

On July 24, the Tanglewood Music Center presented the highly-anticipated world premiere of André Previn and Tom Stoppard’s monodrama Penelope performed by soprano Renée Fleming, actor Uma Thurman, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and the Emerson String Quartet. Previn, who passed away this past February at the age of 89, left the piece unfinished but having accomplished substantial work on it. At the request of Previn’s publisher, agents, and the work’s commissioners—the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Ravinia Festival, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—Previn’s longtime music editor, David Fetherolf, collated the manuscripts and edited the work into a performable edition with the help of the works’ performers. The forty-minute work sets a new text by Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love), with whom Previn had previously collaborated on the stage play with orchestra Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977). The July 24 concert, which focused on music of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American composers, also included George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” Richard Wernick’s String Quartet No. 10 (2018), and Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11, performed by the Emerson Quartet.

For a spectator at Tanglewood, there is a kind of Disneyland feel to arriving. One pulls up as one car amidst antlike lines of automobiles, to be directed by traffic controllers sitting in golf carts wearing polo shirts and fluorescent vests. After parking several fields away, one squints at campus maps to plot an ingenious course to the venue, before surrendering in a daze to the gravity of the crowds oozing steadily toward the appropriate gate where one picks up tickets at park-like kiosks, has the opportunity to buy Tanglewood keepsakes, and stands in long lines to use restrooms housed in Epcot-like structures (no, there is no blasting of theme music). Stepping into Seiji Ozawa Hall (built in 1994, and designed by William Rawn Associates), Disney fades as one enters an exquisite concert space, a fraternal twin to the BSO’s Symphony Hall, though semi-open to the outside and swapping plaster and velvet for timber beams and slatted chairs. The back of the hall opens straight out to additional spectator space on an abutting hill, where elegance and designer shoes are replaced by damp grass and flip-flops. Rather than paying big bucks to win the best seats as inside the hall, the outside audience contends for space through strategic camp chair placement, pointy elbows, and highly-potent mosquito spray. Though I was myself armed with several varieties of bug repellent, I was thrilled to find my usher directing me to a balcony seat inside on stage right, just a few yards above where Uma Thurman would be standing in the second half of the concert.

Though the size of the crowd and the vibe of Tanglewood Music Center at first suggested to me the impersonal experience of a tourist at a nature or theme park, it was soon clear that the concert was intended by the musicians not only as a personal and intimate tribute to the recently-deceased André Previn, but as a reunion of a community of musicians connected with Tanglewood, who had become close friends and colleagues. Previn’s family was in attendance, as were composer Richard Wernick and his wife Beatrice, who had been students together at Tanglewood. The programming of the first half of the concert was consistent with a concert in memoriam. The “Lyric for Strings,” of George Walker (1922–2018) was originally entitled “Lament” and dedicated to Walker’s grandmother. The slow movement of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11 is the original version of the famous “Adagio for Strings,” often referred to as “America’s semi-official music for mourning.” Even the witty quartet by Richard Wernick (b. 1934) contains stretches of lament and reflection on mortality: the second movement is dedicated to Wernick’s neurosurgeon, “whose magic has kept me upright,” and contains allusions to Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” (from his Quartet No. 15, Op. 132), penned by Beethoven after recovering from an illness expected to be fatal.

The Emersons played with characteristic professionalism and integrity. I particularly enjoyed hearing the newest addition to the group, cellist Paul Watkins, who replaced David Finckel in 2013, and whom I had not yet heard live in concert. His genial and generous music-making lent a new and warm flavor to an ensemble I tend to associate with the cool humors. Of note was the Emersons’ flowing interpretation of Barber’s “Adagio,” played at a quicker tempo than even their 1992 Deutsche Grammophon recording. The effect was an ephemeral alternative to the sometimes dirge-like performances of the movement one hears (although Barber probably intended a slower tempo than that of the Emersons’, given performance practice conventions of the 1930s).

The eagerly anticipated second half of the program finally arrived, as the two superstars Renée Fleming and Uma Thurman strode across the stage to rapturous applause. A hush fell as the audience strained their ears to take in the smallest nuance to Previn’s long-awaited Penelope. One soon realized that there was not to be found in this piece the lush, sweeping lyricism of Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Fleming took up one of her signature roles as Blanche DuBois. Though Penelope was also written for Fleming, there was none of Blanche’s melting tunes and soaring peaks. Penelope is starker and more abstract. The opening, in which the soprano introduces herself as the shade of Penelope, calls for the soprano to pick notes out of pitch space, like clear, gleaming drops of water. Whether Fleming was not well warmed-up, or unprepared, or not feeling well, notes were not picked out of pitch space like clear gleaming drops of water. To my dismay, her performance that whole evening sounded clumsy and very much resting on previously-won laurels.

Scored for soprano and narrator, both of whom represent the wife of Homeric hero Odysseus, Penelope tells the famous story of Odysseus’s long exile from Penelope’s perspective. The two voices of Penelope provide different facets of the same character, with the narrator’s side generally more sharped-tongued and cynical, the soprano’s more the indulgent and dutiful wife. To a certain extent, Fleming and Thurman were able to bring out the interesting juxtapositions of personality in the divided Penelope, with Fleming adopting a Rodelinda-esque persona, and Thurman hints of The Bride in Kill Bill. But Thurman’s performance, like Fleming’s, was somewhat awkward and unsure. Both performers made frequent pronunciation errors of Greek names.

Though the program notes assured the reader that Penelope was “substantially completed” before Previn’s death, the version performed still gave the impression of a draft. The alternation between soprano and narrator was disjointed without sounding intentionally edgy, and the musical ideas were mainly unmemorable, with the instrumental parts functioning more as ambience and incidental music than real musical voices. In the note by Previn’s editor, David Fetherolf, who had brought together the performing edition, he clarifies that the manuscripts left in Previn’s apartment held discrepancies with plans that he himself, Fleming, and Previn had made verbally. Specifically, the manuscript held about an hour of music, though Previn had told Fetherolf the work was about thirty-seven minutes, and it set much of the text that Fleming had marked “narrated” in her copy of the libretto. Fetherolf’s edition reflects the understanding between Fleming, Fetherolf, and Previn, which Fetherolf took as Previn’s last intentions for the piece. (We might read between the lines: there was very little composition or recomposition in the process of pulling together a performance score.) The completion of “Penelope” was a fascinating project done to honor a great composer and dear friend of the performing artists, but the piece and the performance did not stand out as a highlight of Previn’s compositional corpus. More rehearsal and preparation would certainly have ameliorated the effect in concert, but I would guess that, regardless, the composer would have shaped the work into a different form had he himself lived to see the completion of the project. Given that the concert amounted to a tribute to Previn, I felt it would have been fitting to have programmed some of his earlier work alongside Penelope.

The strongest aspect of Penelope was the text, composed by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard managed to evoke the powerful adjectival style and vibrant imagery of Homeric poetry without sounding stilted, almost suggesting new translation approaches to the Iliad and Odyssey. I particularly enjoyed his mellifluous and alliterative flow of words in vivid similes such as, “Before she was done with her hoop and hobbyhorse, word spread like honey on an ant-heap,” or,

For three more years his name flickered like a moth in travelers’ tales and rumour, in songs woven from moonbeams by roaming minstrels who sang of one-eyed giants who snacked on sailors, of the six-headed monster Scylla, of witches with spells to turn men into swine, and sweet-voiced sirens with hair like sea-foam falling over the breasts, of an island where a magic fruit made men forget their home and family.

It would be a fantastic future project were the text employed by new composers to draw up alternative completions of Previn’s manuscripts or new works in emulation of Penelope.

On Thursday, August 15, I attended a concert entitled “The Romantic Imagination” as part of the lesser-known, but well-established Skaneateles Festival. Founded by cellist Lindsay Groves forty years ago in one of the prettiest lakeside towns of the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Skaneateles, the festival passed from artistic directors David Ying and Elinor Freer to another husband and wife team, Aaron Wunsch and Julia Bruskin, in 2015. Highlights of last season included the return of two artists who had first played at the festival when they were fourteen and twelve years old respectively—Conrad Tao and Hilary Hahn. The program “The Romantic Imagination” featured the virtuosic solo piano cycle, Kreisleriana, Op. 16 by Robert Schumann and the C minor piano trio, Op. 101 of Johannes Brahms, both with Tao on piano, as well as shorter chamber pieces from the Schumann circle performed by Tao, violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist David Ying, and pianist Elinor Freer.

While Tanglewood is one of the Big Five power-players of North American classical music summer festivals (the others perhaps being Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, Bravo! Vail Music Festival, and music at The Banff Centre), the Skaneateles Festival is one of the small gems of classical musical festivals nestled in rural towns across the Northeast. Though the Skaneateles Festival has recently built an outdoor pavilion used for concerts involving larger ensembles, many of the chamber concerts are still presented in the town’s churches, and the bulk of the audience is comprised of local residents rather than musical tourists. The Skaneateles Festival presents concerts mostly following an artist rather than ensemble model. That is, rather than hiring all pre-formed professional ensembles, as in a chamber music or orchestra series, individual artists are hired, who are then put together into groups by the directors, and who typically only rehearse with each other a few days before the concert. I personally find concerts of this kind of model exciting: the music-making is often fresh and spontaneous, with decisions emerging in the moment rather than fastidiously worked out over the course of months, and one can observe how artists retain or transform personal styles and mannerisms when playing with different sets of colleagues. I found the latter particularly interesting in the concert I attended.

The program on August 15 was beautifully curated, with the Kreisleriana and Brahms Trio in C minor serving as hefty pillars between which short chamber pieces by Clara Schumann (née Wieck), Brahms, and Robert Schumann were nestled. Composer-pianist Conrad Tao opened the concert with a propulsive rendition of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a cycle of eight movements for solo piano inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s character Johannes Kreisler. Tao is obviously a virtuoso to contend with, but his performance in Skaneateles left me with the impression more of an athlete than a sensitive interpreter. Now Tao had just performed the Kreisleriana at the Aspen Music Festival two days before in a concert hall that seats thousands. His performance on August 15 was in a small church that was extremely cramped with a couple hundred, yet he played as if he needed the instrument to scream to the back of a cavernous amphitheater. This not only caused the entirety of the piece to sound roughly the same volume (extremely loud), but the timbre to be both extremely piercing and brittle. The tone was so unmitigatingly strident that for a while I wondered if the Steinway was poorly regulated. The subsequent performance on the instrument by pianist Elinor Freer proved that the fault did not lie in the instrument. Perhaps it was the case that Tao was not able to adjust his touch quickly enough for the smaller venue and acoustics after having prepared the piece for the higher-profile venue at Aspen. It does make one rethink the value of hearing a virtuoso performer in the more intimate settings offered by these charming small-town festivals. In principle, it seems a rare treat to be able to see and hear someone like this at such close proximity. In actuality, proximity might not be what one wants. But the magic of chamber music worked considerable wonder over the course of the concert. One could readily hear that Tao slowly began to change his touch and tone through the musical beckoning of violinist Stefan Jackiw, and even more so in the Brahms C minor piano Trio with Jackiw and David Ying on cello. Did the activity of having to listen and respond to his colleagues make him more aware of his own sound in the church’s acoustics? Did the rehearsal process itself provide kinds of peer feedback not available in a solo run-through? Whatever it was, I was glad of it as a listener.

I was most gratified finally to have heard Stefan Jackiw in concert. Perhaps unfairly, I had preemptively grouped him together with the collection of youngish hotshot performers all of whom attended the same conservatories and all of whom claim to be “among the foremost musicians of their generation.” Jackiw’s playing was simply beautiful. While constantly mixing subtle new colors of sound, slightly varying arrivals and descents when shifting, and adding and subtracting almost imperceptible amounts of vibrato, nothing was ever ostentatious or luxuriant, but neither was it vapid and over-elegant. His overall approach to the violin and to sound production is something of a rarity, and I was in this case grateful for the intimacy of the setting to hear better the nuances of his interpretations.

The last festival I attended over the summer was the Berkshire Opera Festival, a young organization just celebrating its fourth season this year. Co-founded by conductor Brian Garman and director Jonathon Loy in 2015, the festival presented a production of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale, which I attended on August 30 in the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A lovely early-twentieth century theater, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center opened in 1905 as a vaudeville house, turning into a movie theater in the 1920s, then housing the Berkshire Opera Company from the early ’90s until 2009 when the company closed. The space is the perfect size for classical, baroque, and early Romantic opera, giving every audience member the ability to see all of the action and acting, and the singers the chance to strive for finesse rather than mere audibility.

As I drove to the venue, then enjoyed some pre-show ice cream in Great Barrington (I can highly recommend SoCo Scoop Shop a few steps away from the Mahaiwe Center, at 5 Railroad Street), I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new festival. The cast appeared to be all singers on the young side, all beginning to establish themselves in major companies, but not yet well known; there were just three performances of the opera. I suppose I figured I would hear a few good singers in a hastily-rehearsed and rather low-budget production. As it turned out, Don Pasquale was hands down one of the best operatic performances I have attended in years. Every role was well cast and well or exceptionally sung. Every singer, unusually, was also a gifted actor. The choreography was clever, the festival orchestra was well rehearsed and in tune (not a small feat when the orchestra is relatively small). The costumes were beautiful and a fresh mix of historical and modern. The whole production was seamless and effortless—a living, breathing musical story rather than a series of arias and acts. It was opera at its most enjoyable as a dramatic medium.

Even among a remarkably talented cast, the title role of Don Pasquale, sung by bass-baritone Craig Colclough stood out. Portraying a crotchety elderly bachelor who marries a young woman to thwart the nuptials of his nephew to a poor widow, Colclough’s Don Pasquale was a loveable, if infuriating, older relation with mannerisms both natural and distinctive. Though a stock comic figure, this Don Pasquale was multi-faceted and performed with authenticity. So exceptional was Colclough’s acting and so ingrained in him the vocal score, that one almost forgot that in fact he was engaging in the highly artificial act of singing lines in a theater. His assimilation of the character went as far as scarcely-noticeable movements of hands and feet when he wasn’t singing—movements that never distracted, but that presented a real person rather than merely an excuse to sing (as is so often the case in opera!).

The sole major female role in the opera, Norina (the young widow to whom Pasquale’s nephew is betrothed, who then dupes and thwarts Don Pasquale), sung by Deanna Breiwick, also took me pleasantly aback. If Colclough stole the show overall through his assimilation of character, Breiwick enchanted the audience with her glittering virtuosity and sensitive musicianship. Flitting and soaring seemingly effortlessly through leaps, runs, and ornaments, her voice was clear and unaffected, her sense of pitch and intonation exceptionally pure. Next to Colclough, Breiwick’s character was certainly more one-sided—the bombshell and insatiable flirt—but the portrayal was enjoyable and effective. The other main roles, sung by Emmett O’Hanlon (Doctor Malatesta) and Matthew Grills (Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew) completed the talented cast, in a hilarious mix of characters who all sang with verve and confidence throughout the show.

One aspect of the production that slightly diminished my enjoyment of it was the currently-trendy and much overused portrayal of operatic vocal cadenzas and syncopated musical figures as musical depictions of sex, orgasm, and erection. Sure, sex always sells. But it seems to me that almost every baroque, classical, or early Romantic opera I have seen in the past few years has adopted this trick. Syncopations are paired with thrusts if sung by a man or sung as orgasmic shrieks if a woman. Rising virtuosic runs or trills are paired with erections. OK, so it can be funny and can make dramatic sense in some arias. But is it really worth the cheap, crowd-pleasing thrills to employ it over and over again, even­tually teaching the listening public that these musical figures mean erections or orgasm—something that is obviously not true as a general rule of thumb in listening to classical music? Berkshire Opera Festival’s Don Pasquale did not indulge in this to the level of other productions I’ve seen, but it was still used enough to become an interpretative tic. By the end of the show, it really had become tiresome.

All in all though, Berkshire Opera Festival proved to be a real gem, and I hope it maintains its unusually refined level of performance and production as it transitions into a more established festival. Next summer, the opera billed is Mozart’s Don Giovanni, to be performed at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre on August 22, 25, and 28. If the production is anywhere near as good as this year’s, I recommend buying tickets now.