Friday August 31, 2012

LENOX - Who will be the next music director?

The elephant-in-the-room question hung over Tanglewood's 75thanniversary celebrations. It wasn't just that the revolving door to the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium led to ups and downs in performance. A commanding presence, someone who could give character to the festival and galvanize audiences, was missing.

Love them or hate them, Seiji Ozawa and James Levine were the face and sometimes heart of the organization. For better or worse, players and audiences knew who was the boss and generally what to expect.

No one understands the need better than the BSO, and the search committee of trustees, players and administrators is sensibly taking its time to get the job done right. The quest has been ongoing since Levine formally resigned last year, and probably during the years of Levine's health problems before that.

The goal is in sight. In an end-ofseason interview, managing director Mark Volpe said the search committee still has a few conductors it wants to listen and talk to during the winter season, but a successor will likely be named before Tanglewood convenes again. Even then, however, the new leader might not be available for more than limited duty at the start.

To appreciate what 2012 was missing, think of the Beethoven and Wagner programs replicating key programs in the inaugural season. In 1937, Koussevitzky was on the podium.

This year: guests.

Think of the anniversary gala.


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Tanglewood on Parade. The Tanglewood Music Center. Any of a number of other concerts given - or not given - when a music director could have represented the line of succession from the founder.

To occasional visitors and celebrity worshipers, the gap at the top probably made little difference. Director or no director, the big anniversary gala and its sequel for John Williams drew capacity audiences of 17,000 and 18,000. Good weather boosted attendance generally.

Programming proceeded largely as usual. New and old conductors and soloists came and went. Like anchors in shifting seas, senior conductors Christoph von Dohnányi and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, taking three concerts each, provided solidity and a degree of stability, even if Frühbeck seemed ailing.

As much as a season of celebration, 2012 seemed a season of marking time, of waiting for the next Ozawa or Levine. So who are the possible candidates? Two international figures who made 2012 Tanglewood debuts - the Latvian Andris Nelsons and the French Stéphane Denève - are probably on the list. Both are returning to Symphony Hall for a second season. Denève seemed to enjoy special rapport with the players during his appearances here.

The Italian Daniele Gatti, who has yet to appear at Tanglewood, is probably also getting a close look. He has three plum assignments coming up in Symphony Hall: the Verdi Requiem, an all-Wagner program and Mahler's Third Symphony. It will be a Verdi-Wagner year, marking the 200th anniversary of their birth.

Also impressive this year in his Tanglewood (and BSO) debut was Asher Fisch, an Israeli who got luminous playing from the BSO in the commemorative Wagner program. In other notable summer events, the four orchestral commissions (there were three others for student chamber ensembles) didn't allow for large-scale works, but Gunther Schuller's "Dreamscape," literally the product of a dream, and Michael Gandolfi's fast-paced "Night Train to Perugia" offered both substance and appeal.

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, which premiered the Schuller work, gave a succession of brilliant concerts. The final program, led by Frühbeck with Gil Shaham as soloist, was one of the summer's great events.

Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra enjoyed the excitement of youth combined with the ripeness of maturity. The midweek chamber and recital series yielded Gerald Finley's outstanding song recital (with pianist Julius Drake) and Gerhard Oppitz' four-concert cycle of Brahms' complete music for solo piano. Benjamin Bagby's dramatization of "The Rheingold Curse" was a bonus.

Koussevitzky was invoked in word and spirit seemingly at every turn. But Tanglewood today is not Koussevitzky's Tanglewood - not just in terms of season length (11 weeks versus 2), but also in the audience it seeks.

The biggest difference is the broader spectrum of programming now and the different audiences it attracts. Pop and Pops, including galas and Tanglewood on Parade, draw heavily; classical holds its own, and new music and jazz appeal to much smaller, mostly specialized constituencies.

Pop was alien to Koussevitzky's vision. New music was central to it.

Volpe said 2013 will be much like 2012 in design.

Again, the season will open with programs by the likes of James Taylor, Diana Krall and Garrison Keillor, who attracted huge audiences to launch 2012. Then come the eight central weeks of classical concerts, with a separate newmusic festival. In the current planning, a Labor Day weekend of popular attractions, like the ones that begin tonight, will follow.

The challenge to Tanglewood is to build and keep a classical audience as technology and the times dictate changing listening habits.

With luck, a new music director will take his or her place at the head of the table next year to preside over the process. That would be another occasion for celebration.