In the Wind: Music in the Mountains

August 30, 2022
Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood
The Boston Symphony Orchestra on stage at Tanglewood (photo credit: John Bishop)

Music in the mountains

Last January, Wendy and I moved out of our apartment in Greenwich Village and into a house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Stockbridge is a town with two thousand residents in the Berkshire Mountains about five miles from the New York border. It is a gentle little town, and we live within a ten-minute walk of the cluster of shops and restaurants that form downtown, with the historic Red Lion Inn as its anchor. It is a dramatic change from the energetic bustle of Manhattan. Stockbridge was home to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who created the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, and to Norman Rockwell, the illustrator who produced hundreds of paintings to be used as covers for The Saturday Evening Post. French’s home and studio, Chesterwood, is now a museum and sculpture garden, and the Norman Rockwell Museum includes his studio, which was relocated to the site. Rockwell’s grave is about three hundred feet from our back door, in the cemetery behind the house along with many other quiet neighbors including the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

The area is rich with summertime cultural institutions like the Shakespeare Festival, the Berkshire Theater Festival, and the dance theater Jacob’s Pillow. Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is the area’s artistic centerpiece, located about fifteen minutes from our house in Lenox, Massachusetts. It is also home to the Tanglewood Music Festival founded by BSO conductor Serge Koussevitsky in 1940 as the Berkshire Music Festival, a rich educational program with a list of alumni that includes Leonard Bernstein, Claudio Abbado, Michael Tilson Thomas, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi, and Zubin Mehta.

Mrs. Gorham Brooks (neé Tappan) and her aunt Mary Aspinwall Tappan donated the 210-acre Tappan estate to Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1936, and an all-Beethoven concert by the BSO under Koussevitsky on August 5, 1937, was the beginning of the then-called Berkshire Symphonic Festival. The first concerts were held in a tent, and the 5,700-seat “Shed” was inaugurated on August 4, 1938. The Shed is an amphitheater-shaped structure with an enclosed stage and open walls. The rear of the building is a vast arc that opens onto a large lawn—lawn tickets are available to concertgoers who wish to sit outside—and there is a rich tradition of picnicking during concerts. We have seen some pretty elaborate rigs where families pull folding chairs and tables, coolers and baskets in wagons, and set up commissaries with fancy wines. A “Rules” page on the orchestra’s website states that patrons are free to bring any alcoholic beverages.

The BSO acquired the adjacent Highwood Estate in 1986, and an architect’s master plan combined the two properties, making possible the construction of the 1,200-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall, which was opened on July 7, 1994. Ozawa Hall has real walls and side balconies, but the rear wall is a huge door, like that on an airplane hangar, that opens to another picnic lawn.

Summer weather in the Berkshires is notorious for sudden and unexpected violent thunderstorms and microbursts, and severe weather shelters are scattered about the campus in proximity to the two big picnic lawns. Throngs of music-loving picnickers dashing toward those shelters makes quite a spectacle, leaving thousands of glasses of wine to get diluted.

The riches of summer

Regular readers may remember that we have lived in Newcastle, Maine, for more than twenty years, while in the meantime we have lived in Lexington, Massachusetts, Charlestown, Massachusetts (a neighborhood of Boston), and Greenwich Village. Maine is also home to our sailboat Kingfisher, which we use for day sails, overnight sails, and at least one cruise each summer lasting something like a week. When we settled in Stockbridge and tickets for Tanglewood went on sale in February, we agreed that we would buy tickets only for weekends that would be rainy in Maine. Our first Tanglewood weekend has just passed, and it was sunny and breezy in Maine.

We heard three concerts, one in Ozawa Hall and two in the Shed. The great pianist Emmanuel Ax has created a series of three programs called “Pathways from Prague,” largely featuring the music of Leoš Janácek and his mentor, Antonin Dvorák. The program opened with Janácek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, a cycle of twenty-two songs for tenor, three female soloists, and piano. Emmanuel Ax was joined by tenor Paul Appleby and members of the Lorelei Ensemble to tell the tale of a “white” farmer who was seduced by a “black” Gypsy who bore him a child, a story including the triple whammy of taboos—interracial sex, extra-marital sex, and illegitimate births. Absorbing such a complex tale would have been easier if translations had been provided. There was a translation broadcast on a small monitor on the stage, but it was invisible to our balcony seats, and I am sure it was invisible to anyone more than ten rows from the stage. The evening was redeemed by a thrilling and dynamic performance of Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 13 by the Dover Quartet. Their rich tones were amplified by the lively acoustics of the hall, sending us home with our heads buzzing.

The two concerts we heard with the Boston Symphony Orchestra included some disappointments. Andris Nelsons and the orchestra covered soprano Nicole Cabell in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was a little muddled and lacked the energy one would expect. The last time I heard The Rite of Spring performed live was organist Stephen Tharp’s memorable recital at The First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church), in Boston to close the 2014 national convention of the American Guild of Organists. Tharp’s transcription of Stravinsky’s controversial masterpiece was a lesson to all present about the power and range of the pipe organ. The church’s 240-rank Aeolian-Skinner organ is a gold mine of tone color, and it seemed as though every pipe had something to say that night. In my memory, the energy of that single artist exceeded the collective energy of the mighty BSO.

Andris Nelsons’s reading of Gershwin’s An American in Paris was square, lacking the swagger and swing that is so much a part of Gershwin’s music. Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety, was programmed to end the first half of the concert on Friday night, but pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet had to withdraw due to a death in his family, and the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang was his replacement, bringing with her Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a piece that she will be playing in Europe and New York later in the summer.

I have been watching Yuja Wang on YouTube videos for years, but this was the first time I had heard her play live. I will not mention technique. She flies up and down the keyboard like a conjurer. Her brilliant passages in octaves are more than just fireworks, they have shape and nuance along with the dazzle. She plays softer passages with exquisite tenderness, and she summons a vast range of tone from her instrument. Saturday night’s concert included Duke Ellington’s New World A-Comin’ for piano and orchestra. I do not know if the same piano was used for both concerts, but there was a dramatically different range and volume of sound between Ms. Wang and Saturday’s pianist. Ms. Wang has a slight stature, but her touch on the keys of the piano is backed up by swimmer’s shoulders, and she produces a tremendous sound. As has become increasingly usual, the audience demanded and was treated to an encore, a snippet from Vladimir Horowitz’s Carmen Variations, using the full range of the piano keyboard at a rate of something like a hundred notes per second. How she thumbed out those inner melodies in the midst of all that is a mystery to me.

As a further example of the depth of her abilities, Ms. Wang is scheduled to play all four Rachmaninoff piano concerti and his variations on a theme of Paganini with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra on January 28, 2023, at Carnegie Hall in New York. Google it, there’s still time to buy tickets.

But wait, there’s more.

Wendy has just joined the board of directors of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, an annual festival of chamber music presented in our neighboring Maine town of Damariscotta. Each year they offer six or seven concerts with a wide variety of artists and music. Cellist Wilhelmina Smith is the artistic director; her wide connections in the music world help bring extraordinary musicians to our little village. One memorable moment several years ago was when Alan Gilbert, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, played viola in a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in a rustic barn.

After three evenings at Tanglewood, we packed Farley the Goldendoodle in the car and drove home to Maine for the opening fundraising concert of the Chamberfest. Violinist Sean Lee, a former student of Itzhak Perlman at the Juilliard School of Music, played ten of Paganini’s 24 Caprices. Like the Liszt concerto and Horowitz Carmen played by Yuja Wang, Paganini’s caprices are the fiendishly difficult and complex creations of a renowned virtuoso. Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) completed the 24 Caprices at the age of twenty-seven. They are relatively youthful works, but they explore the depths of the instrument and are widely credited with expanding the range of expression on the violin.

Mr. Lee is young with a compelling gift for speaking with his audience about the music he is playing, and he led us through the well-selected caprices with a sort of travelog about what each piece was intended to display. Passages in parallel octaves and parallel sixths seemed especially daring for the layout of the instrument’s four strings, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his tuning. He ended with the twenty-fourth caprice, a set of variations on that famous “theme by Paganini” that has inspired subsequent sets of variations by Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Witold Lutosławski, among others.

I had a brief conversation with Mr. Lee after his performance (there was a very nice wine-and-cheese reception). He spoke of Bach and Paganini as the two towering figures in the development of violin playing—with Paganini’s influence the instrument was changed forever.

What is a virtuoso?

In my experience, virtuoso is a word that is often used casually, diminishing the gravity of the expression. We are members of a social club near our home in the Berkshires where recently we heard a guest artist play a piano recital after dinner. His performance was fine but not special. When he was finished, a friend turned to us and said gravely, “That is why they invented the word virtuoso.” As they say on the street, for me, not so much.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines virtuoso as “a person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary offers “one who excels in the technique of art, especially: a highly skilled musical performer.” Fair enough, but it seems to me that there is more to it than that. As a lifelong listener of music, I believe there is a magic line that a performance can cross above which the awareness of any sort of technical demands vanishes. The performer’s physical being disappears from the flow of musical thought between the brain and the instrument. No matter how daunting the score, no matter how intense the demands, the listener is never aware that the performer thinks he or she is doing anything difficult. The music flows effortlessly off the fingertips, the embouchure, the lips. That is a different plane from “highly skilled.”

Standing ovations have become more and more common, almost obligatory, as if the audience is eager to know that they have witnessed greatness. Some brave soul in the first few rows stands, and gradually people heave themselves to their feet. When Yuja Wang sounded the final thundering chords of the Liszt concerto, the crowd sprang to its feet in unison with a roar of appreciation. Everyone present knew that they had witnessed something wonderful, something seemingly beyond human ability. Ms. Wang leaps around the piano keyboard as effortlessly as the butterflies outside my office window.

The other pianist we heard last weekend was highly skilled, and his performance of Duke Ellington’s music was compelling, but he had to plan each difficult leap, stepping back to assess the issue and calculate the trajectory. It was well rehearsed, but it was not second nature.

Stephen Tharp’s memorable concert in 2014 was a display of multiple levels of virtuosity. His transcription of The Rite of Spring was itself a virtuoso performance. Stravinsky produced a wildly complex score for a very large orchestra. There were eight French horns, three saxophones, and two tubas on stage with the orchestra on Saturday night. Distilling all that to two hands and two feet was a brilliant accomplishment. Even though he had created the score, memorizing the thing was other-worldly, and performing it with power, drive, and sensitivity left the audience breathless. And remember, Yuja Wang was playing for a crowd of music lovers, only some of whom were musicians. Tharp was playing for a huge building full of organists. With a wink, I quip that introduced a special level of difficulty.

Beyond being “highly skilled” and beyond crossing that line about physical limitations, I believe a virtuoso raises the bar for those who follow. Vladimir Horowitz changed the world of the piano (and how could he play sitting so low with his shoulders and nose so close to the keys?). Niccolò Paganini stretched the limits of his instrument, paving the way for the great romantic composers. (Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto four years after Paganini’s death.) How can a fourteen-ounce cigar box with four strings produce such a range of sound? Cecilia Bartoli sings those fiendishly difficult Handel and Vivaldi arias as if she was singing “Happy Birthday,” and Martha Argerich playing Scarlatti is beyond comprehension.

Remove the machine.

It is the challenge of the performer to diminish or eliminate the physical act of making music so there is nothing between the brain and the instrument, and it is the instrument maker and technician’s challenge to remove the mechanics of the instrument from the equation. There was a mighty skillful piano technician behind Yuja Wang’s performance the other night. Both the pieces she played are full of cascades of notes. I marvel at the skill of a great pianist when the percussive being of the piano disappears and the flow of notes sounds like a waterfall. That would not be possible without meticulous action regulation and tuning.

The oboist, bassoonist, and clarinetist spend countless hours making and adjusting reeds, cutting slivers of cane to produce the purest tone. Those who play wind instruments are continuously eliminating moisture from inside their instrument, using swabs, gravity, and spit valves. We have all heard that blurp when a watery bubble makes its way through a French horn.

The pipe organ is the most mechanical of all musical instruments. Practically, it is impossible to eliminate all non-musical sounds from the instrument. We put padded muffler covers over pneumatic actions, balanced bearings for expression shutters, and precise bushings on keyboards and pedalboards. We strive to make wind connections airtight so the music is not interrupted by the hissing of leaking air, but there will always be a click, a squeak, or a groan to be tackled tomorrow. Heaven help us if there should be a cipher. Keep at it, friends.

§

As Wendy and I discussed the experiences of the weekend, I wondered if I was being too fussy, letting the snobbery born of a little knowledge cloud the overall experience. Guilty as charged, I suppose. When we were driving toward the Berkshires last week, we were listening to a performance of a Beethoven piano concerto, and I was thinking it was sub-par. At one of those climactic moments when the pianist roars up the keyboard in parallel tenths to break into a triumphant double trill, the two hands were trilling at different speeds, and I turned off the radio. We had a wonderful weekend, hearing lots of terrific performances along with a few duds, and two true thrills—the Dover String Quartet gave us a real treat. Tanglewood is a gorgeous mountain setting. The weather was perfect, sunny with a lovely breeze (should have been sailing in Maine?). The Shed was not filled, but given the huge seating capacity, there were well over three thousand people in seats, and another thousand or more picnicking on the lawn. Who’s a lucky guy?

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