A year of change in classical music in the Berkshires


Change came in a big way to both the Boston Symphony and the Berkshire Symphony during 2015.

At Tanglewood, the Bostonians showcased Andris Nelsons in his first season as music director. He was impressive in five programs including three monster symphonies — Mahler's sixth and eighth and Shostakovich's tenth — but questions lingered about his commitment to the festival and school.

At Williams College, the Berkshirites showcased the much-improved acoustics of the orchestra's home, Chapin Hall. In an inaugural concert featuring Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, the vivid sound, in turn, showed the orchestra's previously veiled excellence.

Despite these and other successes, Tanglewood attendance was down 3.4 percent, even with an extended 11-week season and an unusually large array of Pops and Popular Artists events. The BSO left early on a European tour, reducing the number of BSO concerts.

Celebrity worship and infatuation with devices continued to divert attention away from musical substance. Yo-Yo Ma figured in the two highest-attended classical concerts — one with the BSO, the other with Emanuel Ax. The latter program was a cycle of the five Beethoven cello sonatas played in the Shed, whose open-air expanse makes it an incongruous venue for playing sonatas.

Among other classical concert presenters, change of a different sort came to the Berkshire Bach Society. After presenting an autumn concert by the St. Luke's chamber ensemble in the Mahaiwe in each of the previous two years, the group switched this fall to a large barn for a program by other musicians. As reasons for the move, it cited increased competition from a variety of cultural attractions for audiences and performance spaces.

In audiences for the Met's opera telecasts, tradition retained its grip. "Trovatore," with star singers, could fill the house but "Lulu," despite searing music and a gripping production, left the Mahaiwe half-empty.

Other people and organizations left impacts.

Death took two musicians of both Tanglewood and national prominence: composer-conductor-educator Gunther Schuller and violinist-conductor Joseph Silverstein. Schuller died a month before his commissioned work, the coruscating "Magical Trumpets," was premiered in Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music.

In another landmark, John Oliver retired after 45 years as the founding director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which grew under him into one of the country's premier symphonic choruses. The music world seems smaller without him, Schuller and Silverstein.

The Boston Early Music Festival returned moving production of Monteverdi's "Orfeo," proving that it was not only the first opera but also a great opera in any chronology. (Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, however, sounded wan in the group's performance with minimal forces.) The Orchestra Now, made up of Bard College students from the main campus, made its debut at the Simon's Rock campus under the indefatigable Leon Botstein.

Thinking more about Tanglewood:

On the podium, Nelsons left no doubt that he was the man for the BSO. Not only did his performances spark with life, but the energized playing carried over into work under guest conductors. Those three over-sized symphonies — the Mahler Eighth with a mostly student orchestra — were both structurally coherent and emotionally charged.

The question is: How much attention, given his heavy European schedule, can Nelsons devote to Tanglewood? He was on hand for three weeks this year, but because of a prior commitment at Bayreuth, that will drop back to two weeks in 2016 — not enough to create a programming profile and establish a presence.

The Tanglewood Music Center's 75th anniversary celebration also lent focus and energy to the 2015 season. Thirty-four commissions to TMC alumni, both students and teachers (sometimes in the same person), created a proud glut, though one that proved impossible to take in complete. Most pieces were premiered during the summer.

Two Tanglewood concerts were extraordinary in opposite ways. In one, Michael Tilson Thomas, a TMC alumnus, lead the student orchestra in grandeur in works by Tanglewood stalwarts Copland, Bernstein and Foss, plus Ives. At the mini (but still expressively max) end of the spectrum, pianist Paul Lewis probed the transcendental mysteries of Beethoven's last three sonatas.

Other outstanding events during the year included Miriam Fried's performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Berkshire Symphony; Roomful of Teeth's explorations into unconventional vocal pieces and techniques; and the baroque ensemble Apollo's Fire's fiery Tanglewood debut

For weirdness, nothing could touch the whoops and peeps that organist Cameron Carpenter's digital instrument emitted in works by Poulenc and Saint-Saëns with the BSO. It turned out the digital organ pipes were too big to fit onto the Shed stage, and the console was hooked up to the public address system instead.

Well, it was different.


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