Rambling about Tanglewood: Leave the kids at home


LENOX — What's the Old Lady of West Street, home of Beethoven and Brahms, coming to?

Dirty dancing, transgressive sex, jazz, tango, show tunes, fog machines, a "sonata erotica" and simulated — BLEEP: Tanglewood is about to get its first concert carrying a parental guidance warning.

Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna Everage, she of the wisteria hue hair and cat eye glasses, will preside as "conférencier," and Meow Meow, the cabaret artist of various genders, will sing not-nice songs by Kurt Weill and others

"Hello, possums," as Dame Edna would say.

A "British, Australian-born firecracker," The New York Times says of Meow Meow (aka Melissa Madden Gray).

She goes "slinking round the stage in her familiar corsetry," says The Guardian.

All this is coming our way in "Barry Humphries' Weimar Cabaret," a presentation of the Australian Chamber Orchestra," due to light up (or perhaps darken) the Ozawa Hall stage on Sunday night.

Fun is fun but the program has a serious intent. It's to re-create, in these trendy Berlin times, the gritty, satirical cabaret that flourished in Berlin during the ill-fated Weimar Republic, 1919-33. It's "Humphries' cabaret" because, unlike the Broadway "Cabaret" and other revues, he means to revive "degenerate" music by composers banned by the Nazis.

A bit of history: The Weimar Republic was Germany's experiment in democracy from the end of World War I until the Nazi takeover. Though founded in Weimar, home of Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Liszt, Nietzsche and other German luminaries (also, later, of the Buchenwald concentration camp), the government and artistic ferment were in Berlin.

But what's the enduring fascination of Weimar Berlin? Humphries asks in a program note.

"Here, for a brief, fragile moment," he answers himself, "this city was at the centre of culture that generated not only epochal advances in science and technology, but also an outpouring of literature, philosophy and art of profound originality."

Humphries, who is Australian, traces the origins of the project back to his discovery, in the late 1940s, of some old sheet music from a Viennese publisher in a second-hand bookstore in Melbourne. Curious, he began poking around to find out more about the composers. Why were they important enough to have been published?

In a Vienna record shop in the early '60s, he discovered that there were no recordings of the unknown composers' music. Hitler, he concluded, "had done a very good job in suppressing a whole generation of music makers." Years later, he and the Australian Chamber Orchestra set about creating a sampler to show the music's "energy, excitement and optimism" and a "premonitory hint of the cataclysm that would soon follow."

Among the examples are the familiar "Pirate Jenny" and "Surabaya Johnny" from Brecht-Weill musicals. More adventurously, there's Erwin Schulhoff's "Sonata Erotica," which carries the warning "for gentlemen only," for reasons best not explained.

Politics and parody play a major role. Hindemith's "Kammermusik" No. 1, for example, pokes fun at Germany's economic and political muddle during this period — also at Stravinsky. Like Weill, who was Jewish, Hindemith, who wasn't, got out in time. Others, like Schulhoff, weren't so fortunate.

Why isn't this music as well known as the art and literature that came out of the period? Humphries asks. Because, he says, music needs performers to re-create it and the other arts don't.

Cue fog machines.

Please be patient

To those who want him more at Tanglewood, Andris Nelsons says: We're working on it.

In an interview here, the music director explained that management and he are making a long-range plan for his participation with the BSO on many fronts, including touring, opera and collaborations with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Nelsons' other orchestra.

We'll see more of him here, he promised, without giving specifics. He especially feels it important to work more with the student Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

The BSO and audience have been so pleased with him, managing director Mark Volpe said, that "we quickly extended his contract through 2022."

Going home

The TMC Orchestra plays its farewell concert on Monday night under Charles Dutoit, this summer's Koussevitzky Artist. He'll conduct three pieces culminating in Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," and anyone who remembers his scintillating account of Stravinsky's "Firebird" with the student ensemble two summers ago will know the sequel is the place to be.

Also on the program: Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist.

The secret is out: Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is to be next summer's Koussevitzky Artist. Last summer, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax were the first to be so lionized.

Dutoit begins his Koussevitzky Artist stint on Friday night with a BSO concert featuring Ax as soloist. A Stravinsky chamber concert that he has conceived follows on Thursday, Aug. 18.


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