Ruth Bass: Tanglewood concert releases a flood of memories


RICHMOND— Tanglewood is always nice. Sometimes, it's incredible. Last Friday night was one of the extraordinary times. Trying to out-think the erratic Berkshire weather, we had seats inside — so, of course, it did not rain during the concert. But we had a better view, a better listen.

Critiquing classical music is something I leave to Andy Pincus. But knowing when something evokes emotions and memories belongs to everyone. Long a favorite of mine, composer Jean Sibelius always bring back pictures of two visits to his native Finland, and Friday was no exception.

The Symphony No. 5 apparently was a torment for him, and he kept re-doing it well after his Symphonies No. 6 and 7 had made their debuts. For me, it was delicious — with mental pictures tumbling about one after another, from the ancient town of Naantali with its many gingerbread houses to the magnificent monument in Helsinki, erected in the composer's honor.

In Naantali, we visited a church that dated back to medieval times and learned that the lovely model ship hanging from the ceiling was a national tradition, reflecting the Finns' attachment to the sea. That symbiotic relationship was apparent when we sailed through the archipelago off Finland's coast and marveled at places where a tiny cottage perched atop a rock outcropping, creating a second home for city dwellers. (We did wonder what they did for running water, both for sinks and toilets, but we didn't ask.)

Listening to the music, I saw again the silvery tubes of the Sibelius monument, some 24 tons of metal that somehow seem to float in the air as if made of feathers rather than steel. The hollow tubes stand close together like organ pipes and can turn a Finnish breeze into sound.

When visitors stand underneath, they look through the tubes to the sky. And to satisfy an endless national debate, the soaring abstract sculpture has a bust of the composer on the side.

Everyone, apparently, was interested in the design of the monument — perhaps design of anything. Whether it's wood, china, yarn or steel, the Finns create wonderful things, major and minor.

Pepper in Richmond is still ground from an irresistible wooden mill with a round, bright red top. And at Christmas, out come the tiny dolls made of wood and decorated with red hats, one of which kept watch at my husband's bedside when he was hospitalized with a heart attack.

In our present turmoil of divide more than unify, it was a relief to recall how the Finns debated construction of a new church on rocky property surrounded by apartment buildings. If they built a traditional building, it would block the light from the residents.

The solution was genius: Put the church inside the rock. Its gray rock walls and purple pew cushions are beautiful, with the side benefit of superb acoustics. The Finns, so far north that the sun can set at 2:30 in the afternoon, treasure the light of day.

In addition to being able to compromise, the Finns apparently can be quite stubborn as well. Part of Sweden for centuries, they managed to speak Swedish and keep their language alive at home, and they have also dealt with an 800-mile border with Russia for a very long time.

Part of the boundary, by the way, has something called a reindeer fence, but the rest is patrolled by humans on both sides and a lot of electronic devices.

If listening to Sibelius at Tanglewood was like rummaging through an old scrapbook, hearing Lisa Batiashvili play Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A minor was extraordinarily new. She was lovely, it was lovely, and it was amazing when she finished and talked to the audience about the week's disaster in Munich (where she lives) and then played an encore of Dvorak's New World Symphony because it meant hope and love to her.

The crowd's reaction was longer, louder and more smile-filled than at a political convention.

Tanglewood is always nice. Sometimes it's extraordinary.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her website is The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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