Arts Review

Music in—and Against—Nature

With the pandemic surging as I drove around Upstate New York and Western Massachusetts to hear live music last August, I kept returning to Robert Frost’s “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road.” The poem felt even more timely when tropical depression Henri struck the Hudson Valley, just as I was on my way to Woodstock.


The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are
Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.
And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole
And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.


Frost, at least in this poem, seems confident that Nature’s obstacles are ultimately surmountable. Even more optimistically, he sees her as a teacher who forces us to redefine ourselves, enabling us to fulfill our apparently Promethean potential. As in-person concerts resumed, I wondered if musical institutions saw the challenges of the past year as opportunities to ask who they are, and how they responded. I was especially curious about the return of outdoor summer music festivals in the Northeast, all of which were halted last year. Even before the pandemic, contending with natural forces was part of the identity of these venues, as they mostly program musical works intended for indoor concert halls with ideal acoustics. For audiences, performers, and organizers, listening to music outdoors—or nearly so under pavilions—has always entailed overcoming the elements.
The Tanglewood Festival, headlined by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer residency, appears to be doubling down on its pre-pandemic identity as an institutional stalwart of the Western classical canon. Concertgoers have been escaping to its idyllic campus in the Berkshires since 1936; the BSO has been performing under the Serge Koussevitzky Music Shed since 1938. Other than during the Second World War, 2020 was the only year the Shed hosted no live music. With few exceptions, last summer’s calendar of events showed Tanglewood’s regular roster of celebrity artists, from Emanuel Ax to Yo-Yo Ma, returning to play old classics, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Johannes Brahms. The theme of “Reconnect, Restore, and Rejoice,” emblazoned on the program books and the website, left little doubt that the festival considered the disruptions of the past year as detours. The 2021 season, though shorter than usual, was meant to “restore” Tanglewood to what it was before the pandemic.
For the last two BSO concerts of the summer, audiences turned out in force—as much as social distancing policies would allow—packing into the lawn outside the Shed and filling about half of the seats inside. (Tanglewood’s attendance capacity is 18,000, but due to pandemic restrictions, it was reduced by half.) Anna Rakitina, the assistant conductor, led the BSO in the penultimate concert, which paired two warhorses—Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op. 36, and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet—with the ensemble’s first performance of a work by the Russo-British composer Elena Langer. Although Langer’s orchestral suite version of her opera, Figaro Gets a Divorce (2016), was the “new” piece of the program, the work seamlessly blends idioms from the early twentieth century, not the twenty-first. Langer finely etches the opera’s characters and scenes in music recalling Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionist period, smoky jazz clubs, and Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, to cite but a few examples. Indeed, her imaginative use of instrumental colors rivals those of Ravel and Elgar—both long recognized as master orchestrators—and the programming showed how well Langer’s suite complemented the Concerto in G and Enigma Variations. In turn, the lush orchestral repertoire of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is where the BSO excels, as it has done for much of its long history. Credit, too, must be given to Rakitina, who conducted with precision and energy. This program was completely within the ensemble’s comfort zone, first performance or not.
The major downfall of the penultimate concert, coincidentally, was the failure to contend with natural forces during Ravel’s piano concerto. The sheer size of the Koussevitzky Shed shields performances from outside distractions, but it also creates its own natural acoustic challenges. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to puzzle over why piano concertos are ill-suited for the Shed. (My hosts during my stay in the Berkshires, who have spent more than 30 summers at Tanglewood, told me they usually skip the concerts involving the genre.) Having heard Thibaudet live on other occasions, I know he has a prodigious technique that gives him complete control over the instrument. Yet despite obvious efforts the orchestra made to recede into the background, Thibaudet was nevertheless drowned out in the louder sections. The piano consistently sounded muted. Still, Thibaudet shined when he could. The second movement of the concerto begins with one of the most extraordinary passages for solo piano in Western classical music. In this thirty-measure introduction, Ravel spins out a limpid, languorous melody that is stunning in its simplicity. Pianists tend to overinterpret the passage, as if to make sure the listener fully appreciates its beauty. It is actually more difficult to perform the introduction with restraint, which Thibaudet did, letting Ravel’s music speak for itself.
For the final BSO concert, Tanglewood again reaffirmed its identity as an establishment venue for the Western musical canon. Herbert Blomstedt, a festival mainstay, conducted an all-Brahms program. It began with the Violin Concerto in D, op. 77, featuring Leonidas Kavakos, another Tanglewood dignitary. Both the orchestra and Kavakos were in full command of their roles, playing together with such ease that the performance seemed like a spontaneous conversation between old friends. Blomstedt conducted with a light touch, taking over the reins only to facilitate accurate trade-offs between the orchestra and Kavakos at the ends of phrases, when the latter was apt to take extra time. Brahms’s concerto, of course, is a staple of the repertoire for both the BSO and Kavakos, so it was not surprising that their collaboration came naturally. The disadvantage of such intimate knowledge of a piece, however, is that performances can become staid. There were instances, especially in the second movement, when the orchestra could have made riskier interpretive decisions or Blomstedt could have asserted control more often. These are minor complaints; if the orchestra were not so reliable a partner, then Kavakos could not have played with as much expressive freedom as he did.
Kavakos’ performance was particularly memorable during an unexpected moment: the coda of the first movement. In a standard concerto movement, new melodic material is rarely introduced in this conclusion section, which follows the cadenza. After the soloist’s dazzling virtuosic display in the cadenza, we know, as it were, how the story is going to end. In many concertos, soloists do not play in the coda, having earned a well-deserved break; if they do, their part tends to double that of the orchestra. It was expected, then, that the Tanglewood audience began fidgeting after Kavakos finished the cadenza, as if the first movement had already ended. Brahms, however, inserted some of his most arresting musical ideas in the codas; that of the violin concerto’s first movement is no exception. The soloist does not get a break here. The cadenza leads the violin immediately back to the same gentle theme that began the movement—which is repeated throughout—as most of the orchestra sustain chords below. But just when we think we know how the story will end, Brahms changes the theme by extending it and sending it soaring into the highest register of the violin; we’ve never heard the melody like this before. The concept is simple but the effect magical, and Kavakos embraced it. He played the transformed theme with a shimmering, elegant tone—easier said than done, considering the absolute technical control required to play a slow, soft melody in such a high register. Moreover, he did it in spite of the distracted audience, many of whom were not expecting Brahms’s minor plot twist just before the ending of the first movement.
The program concluded with Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, op. 98, another staple in the BSO’s repertoire. The symphony is a “serious” work, in which Brahms endeavored to incorporate nearly two hundred years’ worth of musical developments into four movements. His ambition is most apparent in the substantial finale: thirty variations based on a four-note bassline from one of Bach’s cantatas. Despite this seemingly basic premise, Brahms produced elaborate variations based on musical styles and techniques from the Baroque to Romantic eras. As with the violin concerto, the orchestra performed the symphony masterfully. Blomstedt and the BSO brought out the academic aspects of the symphony without sacrificing its inherent sense of tragedy.
Like many establishment arts institutions struggling with the pandemic, Tanglewood is attempting to restore, rather than remake, its artistic identity. Ending the BSO’s summer season with two concerts featuring all-star casts performing familiar favorites was a powerful symbolic gesture to that effect. On the one hand, it is difficult to fault Tanglewood’s commitment to the musical past; the performances may not have been surprising, but they were beyond reproach. If the festival were to take more risks, whether with their performers or the programming, it might alienate their core supporters, who return year after year because they know what to expect. The audiences of both concerts I attended responded rapturously, giving extended standing ovations after nearly every piece. On the other hand, the pandemic seems unlikely to end soon. For such a large organization, a model that relies on traditional programming and in-person attendance might not be sustainable in the long term. (In 2020, BSO musicians had agreed to steep pay cuts, with the understanding that salaries will return to pre-pandemic levels if the orchestra can meet certain financial targets over the next few years.) Of course, this Tanglewood season was planned well before Nature, to quote Frost, “halt[ed] us in our runner tracks” with another viral variant; she will likely do so again. The musical past still has continued relevance, but I wish Tanglewood would balance “circling in one place” with more “steer[ing] straight off after something into space.”
Also nestled in the Berkshires is PS21 (Performance Spaces for the 21st Century), a relative newcomer in the summer music festival landscape. Performances have taken place within its pastoral surroundings—encompassing orchards, woodlands, and meadows just outside the town center of Chatham, New York—since 2006, but PS21’s current facility, an indoor black box theatre that expands into an outdoor pavilion in the summer, opened only in 2018. In many ways, PS21 could be an institutional foil for Tanglewood. The intimacy of the space—depending on the configuration, it seats up to either 99 or 300—allows for more personal and informal musical experiences. Indeed, on both occasions I was there, Elena Siyanko, the executive director, warmly greeted each attendee at the entrance and invited us to pick up free drinks, to be enjoyed during the performances, from the attached café. Partially hidden by the tall grass surrounding the pavilion are a few short walking paths, which reward those who follow them with bucolic views and outdoor art sculptures, reminiscent of Storm King but on a smaller scale. The venue’s charming lack of pretension and accessibility put attendees immediately at ease. In turn, it made the unease—owing to a somewhat unfocused artistic vision and inconsistent perfor­mances—of the two concerts I attended all the more jarring.
The House Blend Concerts is the chamber music part of PS21’s lineup. Alan Feinberg, the American pianist who premiered some of the defining works of twentieth-century art music, devises the series. Through it, he appears to be challenging present-day listening practices that have been reinforced by pandemic conditions; the concerts are, according to the opening gambit of the mission statement, “designed to provide the psychic caffeine rush we can’t get from online listening.” (Ironically, the House Blend Concerts are recorded and available on PS21’s YouTube channel.) But rather than elaborating on this “rush,” the next part of the statement makes a needlessly broad turn: the “goal [of the series] is to present the audience something new, as well as revisiting old favorites in new ways.” Any concert, online or in-person, arguably achieves that goal in some way.
More puzzlingly, considering the mission, some of the pieces Feinberg chose for House Blend reveal the disadvantages of live listening in a semi-outdoor space. The natural conditions of PS21 were not ideal for György Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982), which concluded the third of the four House Blend Concerts. In the four-movement Trio, Ligeti explores the timbral and registral extremes of the ensemble, even demanding one instrument play with difficulty some­thing that might be more natural on another—the musical parallel of defamiliarization. The work requires incredible control and concentration from its performers, of which Miranda Cuckson (violin), Leelanee Sterrett (horn), and Eric Huebner (piano) were certainly capable. They could not, however, compete with the choruses of crickets and katydids that dominate the nocturnal soundscape of summer in the Hudson Valley. Furthermore, the performers not only had to contend with Nature. During an especially suspenseful moment in the fourth movement, when the violin and horn must each softly sustain an impossibly high and low note, respectively, a freight train honked as it chugged by. The dramatic subtleties of Ligeti’s trio require ideal performance conditions, but the “liveness” of PS21 did the work, as well as the performance, a disservice.
The second piece on the program, eight songs from Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1950), demonstrated another downside of live music. The soprano Ariadne Greif sang off book, a risk artists sometimes take so that their performances may benefit from more spontaneity. Still, memorizing the music is not usually expected of vocalists performing art songs, an inherently collaborative genre that is no different than instrumental chamber works. Moreover, art song pianists rarely perform without the score, and appearing on stage with singers who do alters the power dynamics; the pianists become supporting players rather than equal partners. In any case, Greif’s risk did not pay off. Although a sense of spontaneity was palpable, it was the result of nervous unease rather than complete commitment to the moment. Ensemble issues frequently arose between her and Huebner, who had to cover for Greif’s shaky entrances and textual errors. The second song, “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle,” and the rhythmically complex penultimate song, “Going to Heaven,” were especially prob­lematic.
Luigi Dallapiccola’s Tartiniana Seconda (1956), which opened the program, was the highlight of the evening. I knew Dallapiccola as a composer of serial music, but this brief divertimento for violin and piano (or orchestra), based on a theme by the eighteenth-century composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini, is almost entirely diatonic. To hear it for the first time—live—was a delight. There are stylistic similarities between this piece and Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, the piano and violin (or cello) arrangement of his neoclassical ballet Pulcinella. Dallapiccola, however, invoked the past with more tenderness and melancholy than Stravinsky, who prized eighteenth-century music for its objectiveness rather than sentimentality. Cuckson and Huebner’s finely calibrated performance of the Tartiniana not only brought out the work’s poignancy, but also its aptness on that particular evening at PS21. The sighs and birdcalls in the violin and piano were in dialogue with the nocturnal murmurings outside the pavilion, as though Dallapiccola composed the piece for exactly this occasion. It was only then that Feinberg’s argument for live listening became clearer. A “psychic caffeine rush” is not inherently missing from online listening; it is rather the ineffable emotional response to a serendipitous, ephemeral experience. I have since listened to the Tartiniana online, multiple times, with great pleasure, but the thrill of hearing it for the first time, under the unique natural circumstances of PS21 on that summer’s night, is unlikely to be replicated.
The fourth and final of the House Blend Concerts consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Mozart-Adagio (1992), Paul Schoenfield’s Three Country Fiddle Pieces (1987), an improvisation for electronics and voice by Charmaine Lee, and Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922). Lee’s performance was amplified, and the acoustic musicians—Andrea Casarrubios (cello), Blair McMillen (piano), and Emily Daggett Smith (violin)—played with assurance and conviction. Along with repertoire that stood a better chance against Nature’s distractions, this concert was more effective than the previous one overall.
Moreover, the programming and performances did fulfill House Blend’s stated goal of presenting audiences with the new as well as newly revisiting the old. Throughout her improvisation, the “new” work of the concert, Lee manipulated her impressive vocal range with a variety of electronic techniques. She guided the audience through soundscapes both human and mechanistic, earthly and alien. Her astonishing display made me question whether sounds generated by humans were all that different from those generated by machines, which then inspired me to rethink the “old” works on the program. In Pärt’s single-movement Mozart-Adagio, he quotes the entirety of the slow movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major, KV. 280, but splits the solo part among the members of a piano trio. Pärt also adds a sparse introduction and conclusion, along with a few small harmonic changes within the quotation. Considering Lee’s improvisation, the Mozart-Adagio could thus be heard as a twentieth-century mechanistic reproduction of the sonata—like our repeated listening of music online—with Pärt “commenting” on how such old music is mediated in modern times. As Dallapiccola does in Tartiniana, Pärt evokes the past with sadness, doing so despite knowing it cannot truly be recovered.
Although Schoenfield’s Fiddle Pieces are the opposite of sad, they do demand near inhuman performances from the violinist and pianist. (Coincidentally, the work was originally composed for amplified violin, along with an optional percussion part.) Schoenfield’s thick, complex textures are replete with references to the styles and instrumental techniques of country fiddle music, jazz, blues, and ragtime. Smith and McMillen managed it all with aplomb and nary a note out of place. Humans become machines, in the best way possible, when the music requires it. Likewise, Smith and Casarrubios were impressive in Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. Ravel has long been known as the watchmaker of twentieth-century composers, and his sonata’s juxtaposition against Lee’s improvisation emphasized the intentionally mechanistic—which is not to say his music is without expression—aesthetic of the work. The first movement, for example, is a tessellation of short melodic patterns that Ravel passes between the two instruments. The sonata’s precise construction requires equally precise execution, which posed no issues for Smith and Casarrubios. The performers also sensitively rendered the work’s moments of comedy and sorrow.
The fourth House Blend Concert made connections between seemingly unrelated pieces, enabling me to hear a new work as well as old works anew. That it did succeed at this goal, however, makes me question whether the series is as distinctive as it intends to be—and as it could be. Despite the programming of somewhat lesser-known works, House Blend’s approach is not fundamentally different than many other festivals, whether outdoor or indoor, live or in-person. (In New York City alone, countless venues offer chamber works of the past and present, pairing them with electronic and improvised music.) Admittedly, the House Blend series is relatively young, as is PS21, and likely undergoing a period of transition as it finds its identity. Pandemic disruptions could not have made that task easier. Furthermore, House Blend is less representative of the offerings at PS21 than the BSO residency at Tanglewood. Indeed, PS21 is a far more flexible, all-season venue, and its overall lineup includes stagings of opera, dance, and theatre. The Chatham/Pathways Program, in addition, offers various artistic activities in Nature, physically immersing audiences in PS21’s surroundings. If the House Blend Concerts were to pursue experiences that focus on the advantages of new hearings in a live setting, then Feinberg might consider exploiting the uniqueness of PS21’s environs instead of (sometimes) working against them. Chamber works that are site-specific could be commissioned and performed alongside the works that are being programmed currently. Unlike Tanglewood, House Blend is laudably attempting to “steer straight off after something into space.” Space is infinite, however, and the series’ direction could be more narrowly defined.
In between trips to PS21, I attended another semi-outdoor concert in the Hudson Valley. The Maverick Festival is situated in a patch of woods near the town of Woodstock. According to the website, it is “the oldest, continuous summer music festival in America.” Despite its longevity, the festival has a quirky, antiestablishment reputation. Before ever setting foot there, I knew it—as most students of Western music history do—as where the pianist David Tudor premiered John Cage’s 4’33” in 1952. It has long been a venue for chamber music, with a lineup that includes chamber works of the past and present, as well as jazz. What struck me most during my visit, though, was not Maverick’s history or reputation, but its sense of community. The organizers, staff, and audience members greeted each other as old acquaintances.
The intimacy of the performance space bolsters the sense of community. Maverick’s whimsical concert hall is reminiscent of a barn, flooded with natural light streaming in from the windows and oversized doors that decorate one side of the structure. It accommodates, by my estimation, no more than two hundred fifty, with outside seating immediately beyond the barn doors. The acoustics of the airy space were ideal for the concert that I attended, which featured the Amernet String Quartet. The rain from tropical depression Henri fell heavily throughout that afternoon, but it never distracted from the performance, even with all of the doors open. The program, consisting of works by Franz Schubert, Daron Hagen, Bach, and Antonín Dvořák, was part of a series partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled “Surviving: The Triumph of Creative Expression.” Although this theme seemed to acknowledge the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on the arts, none of the works performed explicitly addressed artistic survival, which is not to imply that the program was without interest. Framed by Schubert’s E-flat string quartet, op. 125 no. 1, and Dvořák’s fourteenth string quartet in A-flat major, op. 105, was a musical dialogue between Bach and Hagen. Hagen, the prolific Ameri­can composer whose works demonstrate his grasp of an astonishing array of musical styles, was in attendance. He and Alexander Platt, Maverick’s music director, spoke anecdotally about the composer’s career and offered insights into the program. The audience was visibly charmed, adding to Maverick’s sense of community.
Hagen composed the Suite for Viola (1986) while taking cello lessons and ruminating on Bach’s works for cello. For the first time in its performance history, the viola suite was played alongside Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, alternating between movements from each work. Jason Calloway, the cellist of the Amernet, was the soloist in the Bach. Though engaging in the Schubert and Dvořák quartets, his playing in the cello suite was oddly cold and sometimes out of tune. I never had trouble hearing him, but the performance felt small, as if he were playing for himself in a practice room rather than making a persuasive argument for why these two works should be heard in conjunction. Violist Michael Klotz’s rendition of Hagen’s suite, by comparison, was more interesting. Playing with clarity and intensity, he showed how Hagen reworked Bach’s melodies, textures, and technical demands—so natural for the cello—into a postmodernist collage for the viola. In the prelude of Hagen’s suite, for example, the violist begins with a melody that inverts (but in C major) the opening melody of Bach’s prelude (in G major). The viola prelude then begins to break down, becoming increasingly dissonant, as though the violist is embroiled in a struggle with the piece itself or even with Bach’s suite and all that it has represented in music history.
Other than this dialogue, there was no larger theme holding the program together. Schubert’s E-flat string quartet, despite its late opus number, is a posthumously published work that he actually wrote in 1813, when he was sixteen. As Platt told the audience before the Amernet came onstage, the quartet shows the depth of Schubert’s engagement with Italian comic opera, which was popular in Vienna at the time. Dvořák’s string quartet in A-flat major, on the other hand, is a late work that brims with Czech folk tunes and dance melodies. He began it in New York at the end of his stay in America and completed it shortly after his return to Bohemia in 1895. After intermission, Dvořák’s quartet was preceded by another Hagen work: Snapshot No. 1 (2003). The composer again came onstage, introducing the six-minute string quartet as the musicalization of a snapshot of his parents on their wedding day. The Amernet performed all of these quartets charmingly, with an understanding of their different aesthetic contexts. However diverting, the program was nevertheless a loose collection of pieces rather than a coherent argument for itself. A concert does not need a stated theme, but since this was specifically billed as “Surviving: The Triumph of Creative Expression,” it was a missed opportunity. Nature reminded us of that throughout the concert—masking was mandatory—and immediately after. After applauding enthusiastically, the audience filed out of the concert hall under umbrellas, shielding ourselves from Henri.
Of the three summer music festivals, Maverick seems most able to respond to Nature’s challenges and yet be secure in its artistic identity. Of course, it helps that, unlike Tanglewood, Maverick is a far more modest and flexible organization; and unlike House Blend, it has had far longer to define and focus on its mission. Even though the Maverick concert did not live up to its implicit theme of art overcoming nature, it was the only event I attended that tried to acknowledge the reality arts institutions are facing. Still, for all three festivals, the challenges of the pandemic have not nudged them far from their prior trajectories, if at all. Audiences, in any case, were more than eager for a return to normal. We are, as Frost observes, “insisting always on our own way so.” Ultimately, it is too early to draw conclusions about how the disruptions of the past year might have changed the music festival landscape; last summer may well turn out to be a transitional season. As the pandemic continues to wax and wane, we are still “down in a foot of snow / Debating what to do without an ax.”