courtesy of Tanglewood
On July 20, 1958, at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, pianist Leon Fleisher performed an electrifying Brahms piano concerto with the orchestra under the direction of its former musical director, Pierre Monteux. This remarkable team has not been heard since.
But the BSO has found an inspired way to celebrate Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary. Every day for 75 days, all summer long, the BSO broadcasts a different historic Tanglewood concert on his website, including this astonishing Brahms, and going even further back to Tanglewood’s very first concert, with a Fifth Symphony by Beethoven under the leadership of the visionary Serge Koussevitzky on August 5, 1937.
I don’t remember when I first started going to Tanglewood. It was certainly before I had my own car, as I needed someone to drive me through the Berkshires, over two hours from Boston. The music was only part of the fun. The surroundings are idyllic and a good picnic on the lawn can be as enjoyable as the music itself. Of course, the outdoor acoustics won’t compare well to the magnificent sound of Symphony Hall in Boston, and many programs just repeat what has already been played in Boston. But every once in a while there’s something wonderful that Boston can’t duplicate.
The best performance I have ever heard from Seiji Ozawa was at Tanglewood in 1974: the epic saga of Schoenberg Gurrelieder, who almost screams for an outside frame. He has led the incredible student orchestra and legendary artists such as soprano Phyllis Curtin and bass baritone George London. Ozawa was in his element. When he rehearsed this piece five years later at Symphony Hall, with a different cast, it felt cramped and flat. I’m sorry this is not one of the downloadable performances, although there is an exciting version directed by James Levine. All these past concerts are not serious. I would have loved to attend the BSO Pension Fund Concert on July 13, 1961, conducted by Danny Kaye, whose chief advisor was his friend and BSO first violinist Harry Ellis Dixon. I particularly like the deconstruction of Johann Strauss by Kaye.
One Tanglewood event that I’m very happy to hear again is a 2006 performance of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Story by Tanglewood Music Center fellows. But these brilliant young players were eclipsed by the three speakers serving as narrator, devil and soldier: composers John Harbison, the late Milton Babbitt and the only one at the time Elliott Carter, 97, who is particularly poignant as that deceived soldier.
I don’t have the same enthusiasm for all of the choices, but overall I think this is an outstanding selection. There are informative and witty notes online by alumni Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer who includes some reviews of the original concerts – not all of them completely positive. The first day of each download is free. After 24 hours, you can download each concert for a fee. It’s wonderful to have access to these previously inaccessible concerts. I hope that all the great orchestras make their historical performances available to us.