Friday July 6, 2012

LENOX -- People sometimes ask: Who's your favorite composer?

Meaningless question. Greatness comes in many sizes and shapes. But if the question becomes (as it sometimes does) what is the most memorable concert you've heard here, it's easier to answer.

From 36 years of Tanglewood-going, two concerts jump out in memory: a 1979 immersion in Mahler's Ninth Symphony under Leonard Bernstein and the revelation of Britten's "War Requiem" under Seiji Ozawa in 1986.

These are epic works confronting death -- one of the individual, the other of millions in the futility of war. But something more than death is happening in the music. That something becomes even bigger when the conductor has a personal identification - as these two conductors did -- with the music at hand. And it is bigger yet at Tanglewood.

Of Mahler, Bernstein once wrote: "In [his] position as Amen-sayer to symphonic music, through exaggeration and distortion, through squeezing the last drops of juice out of that glorious fruit, Mahler was granted the honor of having the last word, uttering the final sigh, letting fall the last living tear, saying the final goodbye."

Wasn't that also Bernstein himself? Like Mahler, Bernstein was a flammable mixture of ego and vision, of flamboyance and angst. You didn't have to know him personally to know this about him. You heard it in his music, both his own as a composer and the music of others when he lifted a baton.

Composed when Mahler was dying, his Ninth Symphony grieves, yearns and rages before resigning itself to death.


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In this as in other music, Bernstein squeezed out the last drops, let fall the last living tear.

Britten composed his "War Requiem" for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, replacing the edifice destroyed during World War II. The music pits the Roman Catholic mass

for the dead, in Latin, against poignant war poems by Wilfred Owen, an English poet who died in battle during the last days of the first world war.

The juxtapositions are jarring in the extreme. At the end, two soldiers meet in "some profound dull tunnel." One says to the other, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend." Their voices twine in a duet: "Let us sleep now." With the two soldiers, the two choruses -- one adult, the other boys -- then intone an unsettled prayer for eternal rest.

Ozawa knew war as a Japan ese growing up during the era of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "The Japanese people should now speak out more strongly against atomic arms because we saw two atomic bombs," he said in 1986, during 40th-anniversary observances of the bombings. Britten's fervent pacifist message was also Ozawa's.

Music like this, in the hands of musicians like these, goes beyond death. It affirms the value of life. At Tanglewood, this drama plays out amid nature. Nature enlarges the music's message, and vice versa. The attentive listener is transformed. He or she, too, becomes part of the arc of life.

Chew on this statistic for a moment: In a 2008 survey, the BSO found that only 3 percent of Tanglewood's classical music audience came from Berkshire year-rounders.

The figure is a little below the national average for classical concert-going, which runs around 4 to 5 percent. (It's much higher if you factor in listeners on radio, recordings and downloads.) But imagine: having some of the world's greatest music on your doorstep and not taking advantage of it.

Putting it another way, the vast majority of Tanglewood-goers consists of tourists, second-homers and day-trippers, making the place sometimes feel like a foreign colony plopped down on native soil. On the basis of per-concert attendance, pop -- unsurprisingly -- is by far the bigger draw.

As Tanglewood goes, so goes the American public. Declin ing interest in classical music has to be fed with stars and marketing lures.

It isn't as if we avoid the subject of death in our entertainments. If you want a movie or TV series to sell, it can help to have people to die, usually violently.

But it becomes increasingly difficult, as BSO managing director Mark Volpe noted in a recent interview, to attract audiences to monumental works such as the Mahler Ninth and "War Requiem." Even standard classical works need a hook -- often a star.

This summer's BSO schedule has meaty things in it: Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust," for example, and a four-concert cycle of Brahms' music for solo piano. But the emphasis -- fittingly for a landmark year -- is on galas, names and past glories. The fresh and adventurous things are mostly taking place at the Tanglewood Music Center, the school.

The problem isn't how to change the BSO, which is open to challenges, but how to change the public. Restoring music education in the schools would be a start.

Beyond that, it would be nice if people could get past the infinite distractions of the day and learn, or re-learn, the art of opening themselves to transformative experiences such as Mahler and Britten give. Concert life, and life in general, would be richer. That would be another cause for celebration in this 75th-anniversary year.