LENOX — Highlighting the return of live classical music to the Berkshires in 2021, Tanglewood reopened with a jolt of energy that seemed it could be felt all the way back in Boston.
After 16 months of pandemic-enforced silence, the Boston Symphony Orchestra returned to action in July with an all-Beethoven program that launched a shortened summer season at the big festival. The choice of time-honored but well-worn works might have seemed less than celebratory, but the performances on such a momentous occasion sent waves of emotion rolling through the Tanglewood Shed.
As standing ovation followed standing ovation, BSO director Andris Nelsons told the audience “how much we missed you, how much we missed performing music together, and of course sharing it with the audience.” The feeling was clearly mutual.
The celebration may prove to have been short-lived. COVID and precautions against it became resurgent in late fall.
Other Berkshire ensembles and presenters, including South Mountain, Aston Magna and Close Encounters with Music, also returned to live performance. The Berkshire Opera Festival mounted a much-acclaimed production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Although pandemic precautions mostly prevailed — gaps between clusters of socially distanced listeners left a checkerboard effect in the 5,000-seat Tanglewood Shed — postponements began late in the year.
The “Creatures of Prometheus” Overture, the Fifth (“Emperor”) Piano Concerto and the Fifth Symphony: These old Beethoven standbys carried the impact of the new in the opening-night performances under Nelson. From the shock of the overture’s first big chord, through the broad span of Emanuel Ax’s solo work in the concerto, to the symphony’s triumphant embrace, the performances were affirmations of the human spirit and the power of great art.
Not good enough, The New York Times said. Taking note of the programming both at Tanglewood and in the BSO’s subscription season, critic David Allen wrote that other orchestras were championing the work of living composers — why not the BSO?
“The Boston Symphony returns, then — and continues merely to abide,” Allen concluded.
The argument for a kind of affirmative action for composers is not new. Still, it seems to have gained momentum during the 16-month layoff, a time of heightened racial disparities and conflict.
The BSO nodded to the trend by opening each of its Tanglewood concerts with a short contemporary piece. Most were meant to dazzle or shock — isn’t that what an overture is supposed to do? — but Iman Habibi’s “Jeder Baum Spricht” (“Each Tree Speaks”) stood out. A musically imaginative tribute to the power of trees, it carried a subtext: the need to save the planet.
In any case, the call for a BSO emphasis on new music seems wide of the mark for Tanglewood. The summer festival, with its picnicking on the lawn, casts its appeal to — indeed, depends on — a large popular audience. Some of us might want more new music, but this audience wants star soloists and the familiar and comfortable, not challenges, on a starry summer night.
Though only six instead of the standard eight weeks, the 2021 season followed the template of a full season. It included student concerts and concerts by guest artists, but fewer of them. The guest programs, which featured such favorites as Yo-Yo Ma, took place on Friday nights, mirroring the Prelude concerts standard for those evenings. The BSO took charge on Saturdays and Sundays. The student orchestra followed on Monday nights, its usual slot.
All performances took place in the Shed — acoustically not the most desirable space for smaller chamber programs. Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center were closed to the public. The Tanglewood Music Center was in session for a shortened season with an enrollment of about half the usual 150. It presented a somewhat shortened Festival of Contemporary Music.
It was a rainy, sometimes storm-wracked summer, unkind to musicians and their instruments. Still, one of the most memorable performances pitted soloist Daniil Trifonov against a huge thunderstorm in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, a work of elemental force in its own right. Rather than compete, nature and music seemed to come from the same place, reinforcing each other.
Less successful, at least on first hearing, was the world premiere of John Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 2, with the masterful Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist. Williams, who conducted, is an old hand at concert as well as movie music, but this 34-minute work seemed disjointed, its near-violent passages disconnected from its more poised moments. The full BSO program was reprised on PBS in the fall.
Tanglewood and the BSO passed a milestone with the retirement of BSO president and CEO Mark Volpe after 23 productive years in the front office. He took a four-month extension of his services to see the BSO through pandemic struggles to a summer season. Gail Samuel, formerly CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, succeeded him.
What of the future? Amid the ongoing pandemic, the BSO declined to give a date for announcement of a 2022 Tanglewood season — if at this point the orchestra even has such a date and season plan. Meanwhile, the pandemic and an accompanying increase in streaming are forcing changes in attendance patterns and programming needs for all performing arts organizations.
What will the summer look like? A partial season like 2021? Perhaps. No season at all seems unthinkable, but who knows what wreckage the viruses will strew? If half a loaf is better than none, a half-full Shed is better than an empty one.