Tanglewood Music Center: Summer academy looks ahead

Saturday July 7, 2012

LENOX -- If this is Tanglewood’s big No. 75, three years from now will be the Tanglewood Music Center’s time to celebrate.

Founded in 1940 as the Berkshire Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s internationally famous summer academy looks ahead to 2015. Meanwhile, it opens this year’s showcase season Sunday night at 8 with a concert by the TMC Orchestra. Miguel Harth-Bedoya, himself a TMC graduate, and student conductors will lead the always brilliant student assemblage in four works, including the world premiere of "Dreamscapes" by Gunther Schuller, the school’s director from 1970 to 1984.

Like the parent institution, the school awaits a new BSO music director to take it into the future, including its big 7-5.

Ideally, the new leader will be both a front-rank conductor and a hands-on school leader, according to BSO managing director Mark Volpe. James Levine, who filled both roles, resigned last year because of health problems. The search for a successor has been ongoing ever since.

"That’s why this is probably the most challenging search (for the BSO)," Volpe said in an interview in his office overlooking the grounds. "What makes the Boston Symphony unique is Tanglewood -- Tanglewood not just in the context of a festival, but the music center."

No other symphony orchestra has a summer home and festival like Tanglewood or a school for advanced study like the TMC, Volpe pointed out.

While waiting, the school plans no major changes in direction, but neither is it in a holding pattern, said Volpe and TMC director Ellen Highstein. When the next BSO director comes in, Highstein said, thatperson will "either want to watch what we’re doing already for a few years" or have his or her own ideas "about what something like the TMC can be."

Meanwhile, Highstein noted, in addition to the customary eight intense weeks of classes and concerts, the approximately 150 students will play a role in the BSO’s gala activities. Among other things, they’ll premiere four of seven commissions, including Schuller’s, that the BSO has awarded to Tanglewood-related composers for the anniversary.

Schuller, who returned to give the major address at the school’s opening convocation Thursday, will be in residence for part of the summer. Also on hand will be Oliver Knussen, Schuller’s former protégé, who subsequently became TMC new-music czar.

A TMC performance of Knussen’s one-act opera "Higglety Pigglety Pop," to a libretto by the late Maurice Sendak, will be part of the Festival of Contemporary Music. Schuller’s "Dreamscapes" will be repeated in the same series.

Back in Russia, before becoming BSO director in 1924, Serge Koussevitzky had envisioned "a center where the greatest living composers would teach the art of composition, the greatest virtuosi, the art of perfect performance, the greatest conductors, the mystery of conducting orchestras and choruses."

Koussevitzky made good on the idea at Tanglewood just three years after he founded the festival itself. Aaron Copland was a principal leader for the first 25 years. Leonard Bernstein was in the first two classes and remained a Tanglewood fixture until his death 50 years later, in 1990.

Former BSO director Seiji Ozawa graduated in 1960. Other notable conducting alumni include Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Lorin Maazel. The last two will be among the many grads returning this year as performers and composers.

Among Levine’s predecessors, Koussevitzky and Erich Leinsdorf took active roles in running the music center. Charles Munch and William Steinberg did not. Ozawa was most involved during the last 15 of his 29 years, when he revived a student opera program after a gap of 34 years. During Levine’s four full Tanglewood seasons, he seemed everywhere at once, not only conducting operas and concerts but also giving and attending classes for singers and conductors.

Amid such intensive activity, the TMC has not been an isle of calm.

Schuller ignited national controversy with a 1983 address attacking "absentee" music directors, which many observers took to be a criticism of Ozawa among others. Schuller resigned in anger a year later in an ostensible disagreement about new-music programming.

Then in 1997, Ozawa concluded an ouster of the school’s four long-time leaders, accusing them of forming a "club" against him. Protests and resignations followed. Two years later, Ozawa resigned to go to the Vienna State Opera.

For the time being, there will be "tweaks" to existing activities though no big changes, according to Highstein. Next year, for example, choreographer Mark Morris will direct a staged opera with students.

But, Highstein said, any change must look to both the past and future.

"You always have to decide, are you as relevant as you can be?" she said. "And while being that, are you also respecting the traditions and the bedrock on which you’ve built, and making that part of what you are as well?"

That’s the challenge now and for the next era.


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