Classical Music: Music scene filled with old favorites

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To the listener, the summer classical music season in the Berkshires and southern Vermont means relaxed vacation days and nights with golf, sailing, hiking, biking and fine dining as enhancements.

Concert presenters are happy to oblige with programs occasionally spiced with a novelty, but mostly reliant on old standbys from Haydn through Mahler (with a taste of Stravinsky or Shostakovich once in a while). In the range of offerings — both composers and performers — summer 2016 looks much like recent summers past.

The appeal is summed up by the Manchester Music Festival on its website, which boasts that it "is proud to be part of Hills Alive!" program in southern Vermont:

"Hills Alive is So Vermont. A concert beneath the stars, a gallery tour, a new play or a Broadway musical A wine tasting and a symphony, a picnic among the sculpture gardens These opportunities and more are waiting for you. And you are invited!"

You can say that again for the Berkshires.

Tanglewood, as always, dominates the field in sheer numbers of concerts, breadth of offerings and star power. After last summer's twin celebrations — the Tanglewood Music Center's 75th anniversary and Andris Nelsons' inaugural season as music director — the eight-week Boston Symphony Orchestra season this year (July 8-Aug. 28) packs in only a single blockbuster event: Acts I and II of Verdi's "Aida," with Met star (and Nelsons' wife) Kristine Opolais in the title role.

A diverse chamber series and a contemporary music week offer detours into more unusual repertoire, and the BSO has a sizable contingent of debut conductors and soloists. But it is summer, and the BSO programs beckon to audiences with beloved masterworks and stars, including Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell. Because of a Bayreuth Festival commitment, Nelsons' presence is limited to two weeks. He'll be busy while here, but he'll also be conspicuous by his absence.

The music center, Tanglewood's academy for advanced studies, presents a wide range of repertoire in often gripping performances by its students. And this year, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute for high school-aged students, will celebrate its 50th anniversary, with special performances by students and faculty.

There's pop and Pops aplenty, too, as Tanglewood casts a wider net for audiences. But that's another story for another day.

Elsewhere in the region, the focus is on chamber music, from a lineup of prestigious guest artists at Tannery Pond to faculty concerts at Manchester and Bennington training centers. Each of the region's festivals has a distinctive agenda and flavor. Some, like Tanglewood, are enriched by teaching programs.

Tannery Pond, where photographer and director Christian Steiner draws on his circle of musical friends as performers, opens a six-concert season on Saturday, May 28, with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Three outstanding string quartets anchor the season: the Jasper, Miro and St. Lawrence.

The Aston Magna early-music festival returns with four weekly programs on period-instruments, beginning on June 18. The finale is a program of Bach choral and orchestral favorites. The programs are also given at Bard College and Brandeis University.

The Berkshire Choral Festival has become Berkshire Choral International, with a pre-Berkshire season in California, Newport, R.I., and Vienna. Back home, three weekly concerts by rotating conductors and choruses begin on July 23 with Beethoven's Mass in C and the finale of his Ninth Symphony. The Springfield Symphony Orchestra accompanies.

In Vermont, the year-round Manchester festival, headed by violist Ariel Rudiakov, presents a summer series featuring a young artists program. Twice-weekly concerts, running from May 28 to Aug. 1, alternate between student and faculty players.

The Bennington Chamber Music Conference also combines study workshops, primarily for adult musicians, and faculty concerts. The concert series begins on July 20. In addition to standard repertoire, works by composers-in-residence are offered.

For those who want more, notable chamber series are available just across the Connecticut line at Music Mountain and Yale's summer music school at Norfolk. Farther east, Vermont's Marlboro festival is a pre-eminent venue for faculty-student collaborations (but be warned: the programs aren't announced in advance). And if the past is any guide, other Berkshire concerts will be announced as the season draws nearer.

In an age of digital gadgetry and information overload, classical music offers a return to connectedness with ourselves and a great tradition. But there's more to it than easy listening under the stars. Classical music can also provide new ways of hearing, thinking and feeling. It's for that reason the five following concerts, listed chronologically, are worth special attention:

Tannery Pond, July 16. English pianist Stephen Hough, whose virtuosity and intelligence extend to composition, poetry, painting and writings on religion, plays a recital that includes his own Sonata III ("Trinitas.").

Tanglewood Music Center, July 25. Messiaen's rarely performed, ecstatic "Turangalila-symphonie" is paired with the American premiere of George Benjamin's "Dream of the Song," a music center co-commission. In 2013, the academy's American premiere of Benjamin's opera "Written on Skin" was a major event for Tanglewood and the music world. Reason enough to look forward to the English composer's new work.

Berkshire Choral International, July 30. A rare opportunity to hear Dvorak's wonderful Requiem, a work comparable to Verdi's familiar Requiem in scale, lyricism and drama, but with a distinctively mellow Bohemian quality typical of Dvorak.

Tanglewood Music Center, Aug. 8. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 and Kurt Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins" make up a 20th-century meditation on death and social injustice. The symphony consists of 11 linked songs for a soprano, bass and small orchestra on a theme of early death. Weill's "sung ballet," to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht, is a scathing satire on capitalist evils.

Tanglewood, Aug. 24. The enterprising pianist Jeremy Denk plays an eclectic recital that "charts the history of Western music" from medieval to modern times and back to medieval. Impossible? Not from Jeremy Denk.


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