Summer Festivals: Boston Symphony Taps Music Director, Preps Tanglewood Season

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Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood (Hilary Scott)
Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood (Hilary Scott)
By Leslie Kandell

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has named Andris Nelsons as its next music director. At the moment, his title is Music Director Designate. But the Latvian-born conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony will not assume full duties in his new position until the 2014-15 Boston season. This summer he is to appear only once at Tanglewood, the spacious western Massachusetts estate in the Berkshires where the BSO performs and teaches in summer.

So another post-James Levine Tanglewood season will be spent relying on the experience and talent of guest conductors. For each over-scheduled week, guest conductors – and Nelsons, who will lead the Verdi Requiem on July 27, is one – conduct Boston Symphony concerts and also coach and conduct the young professionals who are fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. Levine’s stepping down because of injuries and ill health “was a great loss,” said artistic administrator Anthony Fogg. “He had it all.”

Nelsons, 34, is among the 132-year-old BSO’s youngest music director appointees – certainly since the beginning of the 20th century. His intelligence and energetic enthusiasm are in place; time and thought will probably take care of looseness of his big beat. The Verdi Requiem will feature the near-incomparable Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which sings from memory. His wife, Kristine Opolais, with whom he has a daughter, is to be the soprano soloist.

Tanglewood Music Festival logoConcerts in 5,000-seat Koussevitzky Music Shed and the 1,000-seat Ozawa Hall (each with their manicured lawns for picnicking and stargazing) are currently programmed by a management team of this musical headless horseman. Gone are the days when Serge Koussevitzky, who founded Tanglewood 75 years ago, could introduce a contemporary work and repeat it on the spot. Evolving tastes and cold financial realities create a pull toward lucrative popular programs. It’s dangerous to risk straining the Shed audience’s tolerance – though Levine gambled, commissioning or performing works by Schoenberg, Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen. (What will Nelsons do? That’s to be seen.)

So Boston Pops concerts will number not two or three as in the past, but five – plus West Side Story on July 13, when the remastered film will be shown, with Leonard Bernstein’s score played live by the orchestra.

The opening concert on July 5 is all-Tchaikovsky, conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and featuring Joshua Bell in the violin concerto. As always, the Aug. 25 finale piece is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, this year led by principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink.

Farthest from the program safety zone is The Goat Rodeo Show, on Aug. 15, starring Yo-Yo Ma. “‘Goat rodeo’ is an expression for a chaotic situation, with people from separate orbits voicing different interpretations,” Fogg said. This concert grew from a recording project with bassist Edgar Meyer and string players “from different musical orbits.”

Like James Taylor (a Tanglewood favorite who is taking the summer off to record an album), Ma is such an icon that this concert will draw crowds from several audience segments. These would include neighbors, because Taylor and Ma both have homes in the area, and Ma, who is to perform the Dvořák Cello Concerto Aug. 4, is a faculty coach.

Adventures in sound are more likely to be found across the Great Lawn and down a shaded path, at Seiji Ozawa Hall, where guest ensembles appear. The ghost of the opera department that Levine was rebuilding will hover over small operas in concert versions. In 2000, Levine had commissioned John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby for the Metropolitan Opera; Emmanuel Music, with which Harbison works closely in Boston, will perform it in concert July 11, in anticipation of his 75th birthday.

In past pre-seasons, Mark Morris has brought young dancers from nearby Jacob’s Pillow to perform in chamber works played by fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. This summer the choreographer moves into center season without any dancers, directing a double bill of concert operas, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Britten’s Curlew River, on July 31 and again on Aug. 1.

Another opera, also to be heard in concert version, is George Benjamin‘s new Written on Skin, introduced last summer at Aix-en-Provence and Covent Garden. Part of Tanglewood’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music (a prestigious, time-intensive event cluster, this year Aug. 8-12, that no music reporter should miss), it has already made its mark in Europe with its strong story and powerful music drama, Fogg said. Long and short excerpts from the steamy staged version are on YouTube.

As the Boston Symphony awaits the arrival of Nelsons, so does the Tanglewood Music Center, whose fellows, trained by orchestra members, perform most of the Contemporary Festival. Among this year’s coaches are Harbison, Stéphane Denève, and Michael Gandolfi. Its director is the formidable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who will also give a piano recital. He has programmed works by Helmut Lachenmann and Marco Stroppo, whom Fogg described as “important European figures who can open the door to new worlds.”

Carter, whose work will also be heard, was a significant Tanglewood figure who attended every Contemporary Festival and bowed from the stage. Most composers don’t live past 80, but Carter – before he died last winter at the age of 103 – composed some 90 works after he turned 80.

Guest conductors rumored to have been considered for the position of music director are Denève, who will surely perform the brains out of Poulenc’s Stabat Mater Aug. 2nd – as he does of all things French, and Vladimir Jurowski, a solid musician whose Tanglewood debut is July 19, with a meaty program of Wagner, Liszt, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in Mahler’s orchestration.

Concert specifics are online. For more information, call 617-266-1492, till shortly before the festival begins, and then: 413-637-1600. 888-266-1200 is always good.

Leslie Kandell has contributed articles on music and dance to The New York Times since 1982.  She writes “The Year in Music,” Musical America‘s annual summary of trends and events, and has contributed features and reviews to musicalamerica.com, the Los Angeles Times, BBC Music Magazine, Opera News, Stagebill, American Record Guide, and other magazines.  She has served as a competition juror, and also writes for the Berkshire Eagle and other newspapers, reviewing performances at Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Aston Magna, the Berkshire Choral Festival and the Berkshire Opera.  Her primary blog is Notes on Notes: lesliekandell.typepad.com.