Critic's choice: New takes on classical music


LENOX -- A classical critic's No.1 choice for the coming summer has to be conductor Andris Nelsons' two weekends of concerts at Tanglewood.

This will be the Berkshires' first in-depth look at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new music director. Appointed last year, he officially takes over in September, but the Berkshire appearances are a major preview, offering a sampling of his range.

The 35-year-old Latvian's four programs are highlighted by a gala, half with BSO and half with theTanglewood Music Center Orchestra. With three Met-level soprano soloists, the student orchestra will perform in excerpts from Strauss' "Rosenkavalier." BSO repertoire for the gala, as for the rest of Nelsons' run, is mainly standard with a couple of contemporary pieces thrown in.

So, big doings at Tanglewood. But such high-profile events speak for themselves. They also overshadow many tempting programs, both at Tanglewood and in the Berkshires' other concert venues.

The BSO, in a generally conservative season, will perform Mahler's huge "Resurrection" Symphony under old-master conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi. His performances in recent years pretty much assure a knockout evening in a work that -- sure enough -- promises life everlasting.

He precedes the Mahler with a Beethoven-Mozart-Mendelssohn evening with the estimable English pianist Paul Lewis (in Mozart's Concerto No. 12).

Elsewhere on the circuit, Aston Magna, the early-music festival, offers "A Season of Romance, War and Other Human Follies," culminating in the premiere of a commissioned work by Nico Muhly. He's the composer of the moment, with a Met premiere just behind him. How do baroque specialists present a 2014 work? That's the temptation.

What makes such programs attractive is that they are steps off the beaten path. The crowds will come to Tanglewood for "Candide," an accompanied screening of "The Wizard of Oz," and certified stars on the order of Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. These are all worth seeing and hearing, but discovery and adventure can offer a tingle beyond the familiar.

With the BSO generally playing it safe in programming, some of Tanglewood's most enticing programs take place not in the Shed, but in the more intimate confines of Ozawa Hall.

One program not to miss, for example, will be pianist Jeremy Denk's pairing of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations and Ives' "Concord" Sonata -- an unlikely match that has become a specialty of his. Composed two centuries apart, the two works ostensibly have nothing in common except their demands on a pianist's stamina and intellect, yet each ventures deep into a composer's world.

Then there are the Emerson String Quartet's marathon of Shostakovich's last five quartets, and the Sequentia Ensemble's program of music and storytelling from the court of Charlemagne.

The Shostakovich evening by the masterly Emerson, which has recorded all 15 of his quartets, promises a cathartic immersion in 20th-century personal and political grief. Sequentia takes listeners back to 9th-century royalty.

The group is directed by Benjamin Bagby, the scholar-musician who has brought narrative and musical reconstructions of "Beowulf" and "The Rheingold Curse" to Tanglewood in the past. Each was a fascinating step back in time, as "Echoes from Carolingian Palaces" promises to be.

Also in Ozawa Hall comes a revival of Jack Beeson's once popular opera "Lizzie Borden" (yes, she of the ax murder). This production is billed as a chamber adaptation performed by members of the Boston Lyric Opera. How will the 1965 piece stack up today?

And always, Ozawa Hall concerts by Tanglewood students offer excitement and discovery. Though most program details have yet to be announced, aficionados know to just go.

Discovery also makes Elgar's oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius," at the Berkshire Choral Festival, tempting. A setting of a poem by Cardinal Newman on the journey of a soul after death, it is little known outside of choral circles.

Tannery Pond Concerts offer discovery of different kind. The chamber series presents lesser-known artists -- many of them young competition winners -- in varied repertoire. Many in the past, such as Denk, have gone on to major careers.

To get down and dirty, you can go to Aston Magna's fourth program, "Vice Squad: Baroque Skirmishes with Alcohol, Tobacco, Coffee and Love." Sample: Purcell's "Songs of Love and Drink." The baroque pious and orderly? Apparently not.


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