Tanglewood to celebrate Verdi, Wagner on opening night


LENOX -- Incredible as it may seem, this will be the ninth season in the last 12 years that the Boston Symphony Orchestra spends at Tanglewood without a music director in residence.

Relief is in sight -- sort of. The Latvian Andris Nelsons, 34, was named BSO music director in May. He takes office in September 2014, but his role at Tanglewood remains to be determined. He'll be here for one concert this summer, and it's a biggie: Verdi's Requiem, part of a Verdi-Wagner bicentennial celebration.

Beyond that, all that's known of his summer plans is that he conducts at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Once again, the BSO will be led by a parade a guest conductors.

On the whole, the eight-week classical music season beginning Friday night looks like a typical Tanglewood season. Despite an infusion of pop before and after the classical events, Tanglewood remains, first and foremost, the summer home of a major symphony orchestra and its renowned school, the Tanglewood Music Center.

Now that its own 75th-anniversary celebration is past, Tanglewood will celebrate four other milestones.

There'll be concerts recalling the birth, in 1813, of Verdi and Wagner, the 19th century's greatest (though very unlike) opera composers. Centennials will mark the riot-torn premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in Paris and the birth of Benjamin Britten, the great 20th-century opera composer.

Opera looms large in the season for the first time since James Levine's departure, and we'll get to that in a moment. But first, it's worth considering the vacancy on the podium and its effects.

Go back to 2002, the summer of Seiji Ozawa's farewell. He appeared in one weekend of valedictory concerts and was gone.

After a three-year interregnum, Levine arrived in 2005, announcing himself with a mighty blast: Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Three lively seasons under him followed. Then, in 2008, he opened the season with a two-part performance of Berlioz' huge opera "Les Troyens" and disappeared, never to be seen here again, because of continuing health problems.

A music director is necessary for the obvious reasons: to provide leadership and embody an institution's identity. As practiced by a Levine, the need goes deeper. With new ideas and energetic leadership, he brought excitement to the BSO and TMC, where he inspired students with his rehearsals, performances, classes and all-round presence.

The school has continued to be a source of excitement and innovation under director Ellen Highstein. If Nelsons can't come, one alternative would be a return to a musician as artistic director and focal point. In the past, Leon Fleisher, who returns this summer as a piano soloist, and composer Gunther Schuller have filled that role.

Nelsons inherits a BSO in excellent technical condition -- paradoxically, because it has had to adapt quickly to a succession of guest conductors, some of them old friends, some newcomers. What will he make of this venerable institution in a time of radical audience change? Will he provide the kind of focus and sustained excitement Tanglewood has recently lacked?

Obviously, thought has gone into the season. In addition to Nelsons' Verdi Requiem for the anniversaries, the German Lothar Koenigs, in his debut, will conduct Act III of Wagner's "Walküre," with the commanding Bryn Terfel as Wotan.

Charles Dutoit will conduct the centennial "Rite of Spring," and Britten will be recalled with an intriguing pairing: the Japanese film "Motomasa" and, on following nights, Britten's "Curlew River," an operatic setting of the film's mythical story. The Britten opera, in turn, is paired with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Mark Morris will lead the staged TMC productions.

Opera will also be honored by two other unusual projects: John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" (no relation to the current movie), in a concert performance by Emmanuel Music of Boston; and the American premiere of George Benjamin's "Written on Skin," in a concert performance by TMC students. Both eminent composers have long associations with Tanglewood.

Other season highlights include a screening of Bernstein's "West Side Story," with the BSO playing the orchestral part, and a round robin of notable pianists, including Garrick Ohlsson, Lang Lang and Yefim Bronfman as well as Fleisher.

Tanglewood is reaching out to present and future audiences with a broad array of ticket deals and educational programs. The big question, though, is where the BSO, its festival and its school are going under a fiery young conductor who has yet to commit to Tanglewood.

Meanwhile, the music begins.


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