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Is an 80-year tradition worth continuing at Tanglewood? Audience members think so

Winds of change are blowing through the Boston Symphony’s summer home this season, but one family-friendly tradition, Tanglewood on Parade, appears sturdy and adaptable enough to endure.

Originally designed by BSO music director and Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky as a 1940 wartime relief-fund event, TOP returned in 1946 and has been presented annually since 1950, in part as a showcase for the most-impressive talents of young players in the Tanglewood Music Center’s summer training academy.

couple laughs in lawn chairs surrounded by empty lawn chairs

As the rain drives most people to the shelter of the Koussevitzky Music Shed on Tuesday, Susan and David Hamilton continue to laugh and enjoy themselves on the lawn during Tanglewood on Parade in Lenox.

It’s also a benefit — and on Tuesday night, returning for the first time since 2019 because of the pandemic, there was an aura of celebration. The BSO, Boston Pops and TMC musicians took the stage in turns, then gathered, nearly 200 strong for Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” cannon-free this summer but packing its customary wallop.

Here are six of the evening’s highlights:

• Boston Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams, at 90 remarkably energetic and spry, took the podium following the customary hero’s welcome, leading a tribute to retiring TMC Director Ellen Highstein by honoring her request to reprise his vivacious “JUST DOWN WEST STREET, on the left …” composed in 2015 for the center’s 75th anniversary.

The music, a clever blend of his film score and concert hall styles, is celebratory. Addressing the audience, Williams called Highstein “a woman I adore and loved working with all these years.”

• Introducing “Potter Triptych,” a suite of three memorable cues from the first two Harry Potter films (“Hedwig’s Theme,” “Fawkes the Phoenix” and “Harry’s Wondrous World”), Williams noted that “I get a little bit nostalgic about Harry Potter because I wrote the score for the first film [“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” 2001] at Tanglewood.”

Concluding what’s likely to be his only conducting appearance here this summer — though he’ll be feted on Aug. 20 at a BSO concert — Williams gallantly handed a bouquet presented to him by a fan to Assistant Concertmaster Elita Kang, who was visibly moved and tearful over the gesture.

• Making a long-overdue Tanglewood debut, esteemed American conductor JoAnn Falletta led the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis.” A member of the TMC faculty in 1940, Hindemith wrote his score as a powerful workout for every section and individual player of an orchestra — particularly percussion, brass and winds.

Falletta, the first female conductor of a major ensemble when appointed music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1998, is on the conducting faculty of the TMC this summer, leads a BSO concert this Saturday night, and it’s high time that she becomes a regular here.

• Conducting the BSO in a whirlwind, demonic performance of Ravel’s “La Valse,” the orchestra’s Artistic Partner, British composer Thomas Adès, demonstrated once again his conducting prowess. He’ll lead the orchestra this Sunday in a personal favorite, Holst’s “The Planets.”

8.2.22 Thomas Wilkins conducts the BSO during ToP (2).jpeg

Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s Youth and Family Concerts Conductor, led the Pops in “Tico-Tico,” the vividly rhythmic orchestration of Zequinha De Abreu’s 1917 Brazilian song that became a hit in the U.S. during the 1940s.

• Thomas Wilkins, the BSO’s Youth and Family Concerts Conductor, led the Pops in “Tico-Tico,” the vividly rhythmic orchestration of Zequinha De Abreu’s 1917 Brazilian song that became a hit in the U.S. during the 1940s. Following that with film composer David Raksin’s haunting “Laura” soundtrack theme and “America” from Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s “West Side Story,” the melange seemed ill-conceived on paper but surprisingly effective in performance.

• In retrospect, the decision to include the “1812 Overture” this summer, as first advocated by Pops Conductor Keith Lockhart for the annual Independence Day concert on Boston’s Esplanade, seemed entirely appropriate despite its militaristic, nationalistic Russian themes. Preceded by the Ukrainian National Anthem conducted by Wilkins, the perennial crowd-pleaser was given a rousing, swift performance by the combined BSO-TMCO players led by Stefan Asbury, the TMC Artist in Residence and Head of the Conducting Program.

As Lockhart has pointed out, Tchaikovsky’s 1880 work celebrating the retreat of Napoleon’s forces from Russia following the French leader’s unprovoked aggression is all about triumph over adversity. “The Boston Pops and the Boston Symphony stands with the people of Ukraine, and salutes all who stand for democracy and against injustice, and are willing to sacrifice everything for their freedom,” Wilkins told the audience, partially quoting Lockhart.

Tanglewood on Parade, which also showcases the work of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute for teenage musicians during pre-concert afternoon events, remains a welcome, accessible festival that draws a wide range of age groups, including many full-time Berkshire residents. Its return Tuesday was most welcome.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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