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Tanglewood 2017: It gets better every year

August 3, 2017 05:15 am Updated: August 7, 2017 04:50 pm

For me, this summer’s Tanglewood season opened in Ozawa Hall with an exciting concert performed by Apollo’s Fire — also known as The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra.

Named for the classical god of music and the sun, Apollo’s Fire was established by Jeannette Sorrell who leads the orchestra while conducting from the harpsichord. This long-time favorite ensemble of mine energetically entered the stage from both sides and, while standing, took off with a performance of what they called “Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons — Rediscovered.”

It was like no other performance of this work I have ever heard. Up until now, I have thought of this piece as just another orchestral work.

Sorrell introduced each movement with skillfully chosen, short orchestral excerpts, which portrayed the return of birds in spring on the violin, thunderstorms on the bass and other elements of the seasons that enabled the audience to hear and understand the music in an entirely different way.

This is the hallmark of her performances; she brings new understandings to the music with her warm and charming introductions.

The orchestra includes baroque instruments, has a wonderful sound and brings out interplays between instruments like violin and cello and cello and flute. It is clear the musicians love the music and each other as they exchange looks of support and hugs at the end of a piece.

Years ago, the Marlborough Orchestra used to come down to Tanglewood and play in the theatre. The great Alexander Schneider and Rudolph Sirken, along with other members of the orchestra, would exchange hugs after they played joyously together.

It is so wonderful when the music brings this out of the musicians and they share their love for music and each other with the audience. I am glad to see this returning to Tanglewood.

The concert ended with their traditional hoedown encore of folk tunes from the British Isles, which included a pennywhistle played mostly modal square dance music. This was a delight to this banjo-picking folk singer.

The audience and I rose in a standing ovation before reluctantly returning home from this great concert experience.


The Boston Symphony’s official opening night at Tanglewood occurred a couple of nights later in the Shed with the conductor and music director Andris Nelsons leading the orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and soloists in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

I am always curious how maestro Nelsons chooses his programs. Since he opened the season with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, it occurred to me he is closing the summer with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he did brilliantly last summer with almost the same cast of musicians as Mahler Symphony No. 2, which is a great and demanding work for orchestra as is Beethoven’s Ninth.

There is a new musical idea every minute in this work and Nelsons brings out everything the composer has written into his music as he always does. It is a special challenge for timpani and it was perfect as was the entire performance.


My next highlight at Tanglewood came a week or so later when I was introduced to the brilliant young Russian pianist Danill Trifonov perform Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No 21,” again conducted by Andris Nelsons.

This is one of my all-time favorite piano concertos of Mozart’s — my go-to recording is usually that of Murray Pariah). Trifonov brought out emotional content I have never heard in this work or in any other work of Mozart.

One of the wonderful things about Tanglewood is it introduces great young musicians from all over the world who bring new concepts to the music.

Trifonov’s playing was emotional and expressive. There was almost pathos in the second movement. The cadenzas were brilliant and filled with so much music I thought the orchestra was adding its sound. The handoffs between soloist and orchestra were smooth and flawless and the orchestra never got in the way, always supporting the soloist, which is a hallmark of Nelsons’ style.

As an encore, Trifonov played Prokofiev’s Gavotte from Cinderella, which reminded me of crickets. Encores are rare at Tanglewood (although getting less so), but in this case, I would have rather gone home high from his magnificent performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto.

I’ve noticed from comments Trifonov tends to shoot himself in the foot with this affliction by diminishing what otherwise would have been a glorious evening of music.

The high point of July for me was the Saturday morning rehearsal in which Anne-Sophie Mutter, Andris Nelsons and the BSO rehearsed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. These Saturday morning rehearsals are often a “best buy” at Tanglewood, as the music has usually been rehearsed before, and they are essentially informal performances with few, if any, stops.

Even when the playing does stop, it is interesting to observe the conductor’s corrections. These rehearsals are not crowded and you can sit close to the BSO. There were only about 40 cars in the west lot and it’s easy to enjoy the grounds. There are activities for kids and best of all, you get to see the elegantly formal BSO in their informal, relaxed summer clothing, and Andris Nelsons in an orange shirt and black vest, with his full black beard very much on display.

Anne-Sophie Mutter appeared relaxed in her informal clothing and noticed someone in the front row who came forward and gave her a hug. This “someone” turned out to be John Williams, whose short modern work opened the program. They exchanged words and he returned to his seat, waving at the audience, which responded with a round of enthusiastic applause.

After this piece, Williams, Mutter and Nelsons all exchanged a few words and the rehearsal moved on to the Tchaikovsky. Wow, this was some rehearsal.

The first movement was glorious, starting off softly with the orchestra playing the beautiful theme of the introduction. Then, Mutter came in with the violin, which sang with emotion and grace, building with strength and fury. As she reached the peak of a powerful crescendo, she and the orchestra exploded, leading her into a magnificent cadenza with strong, powerful harmonics, revealing Anne-Sophie Mutter to be one of the world’s great violinists.

The second movement was beautiful and emotional with lovely handoffs to the flute and other instruments, which led to the most up-tempo and exciting third movement of this great work I’ve ever heard. Nelsons and Mutter gave each other a well-deserved hug after this performance as the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation that did not stop until Mutter and Nelsons returned to play both the violin and orchestral music from John Williams’ "Schindler’s List," appreciated by the audience not only for its musical beauty, but as a tribute to the people in the world who are undergoing hardship, as did Schindler’s people.

As a postscript, I heard the concert on Sunday and I would give it the same review, but with the informality, I think I enjoyed the rehearsal just a tad more.

This is only the end of July, so I hope you will check the Tanglewood schedule since there is more of this great music to come. Go and enjoy.

Dave Sear is a folk singer who has given concerts and played on major folk festivals all over the country with other singers including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Tom Paxton and Judy Collins. He is performing a new concert, Pete Seeger’s America in Song, in tribute to his old friend and mentor and a wide-ranging concert with his granddaughter, Marissa Mann, singing and adding her jazzy clarinet, spanning two centuries of American folk music and three generations of folk singers. He spent over 45 years in radio as host/producer of “The Folk Music Almanac” and “Folk and Baroque” and was heard nationally on NPR and locally on WAMC. For 10 years, he produced the folk music concerts at the Spencertown Academy for his radio shows, which are now being rebroadcast. He is a freelance writer living in Great Neck, Long Island, and also has a home in Hillsdale. He teaches folk banjo and guitar in his studios and worldwide over Skype to people wanting to use the instruments to accompany their singing.