Highs and lows of classical season: Nelsons leaves BSO mark

If you could attend only one Berkshire classical-music concert in 2017, "Das Rheingold" at Tanglewood was the one to hear.

The Wagner opera, conducted by Andris Nelsons with Thomas J. Mayer as Wotan, wasn't just a performance — it was a galvanizing experience carrying the listener into a world where the gods, like us mortals, squabble among themselves, are greedy for gold and power, and generally make a mess of things. Though done with only minimal staging, the production carried the force of great theater.

"Rheingold" was just one of many musical ventures and adventures at Tanglewood in Nelsons' third summer as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director. Ground-breaking for a $40 million rehearsal and performance complex for the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO's academy, was another major development. But the year also had musical landmarks elsewhere.

Among them, the Berkshire Opera Festival was back for a second summer with a well-received production of Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." Meanwhile, Berkshire Choral International, completing a gradual process in recent years, decamped entirely from Sheffield for performance. It will now go to Baltimore, Saratoga Springs, California and England to form choruses and sing.

The Berkshire Bach Society got a new music director, violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet. And the newly founded Berkshire Chamber Players, made up of local musicians and recent Tanglewood Music Center graduates, debuted in its home, the Stockbridge Library.

The BSO is really going places — including Leipzig, with whose venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra it forged an alliance — under the 39-year-old Nelsons. He extended his summer season to four of the BSO's eight weeks — he'll go to five weeks in 2018 — and conducted a seemingly crushing number of concerts, even taking up the trumpet as soloist in a couple of them. He's also taking the BSO on tour and making notable recordings with it.

The $40 million TMC complex is scheduled to open in 2019 and also house a new Tanglewood Learning Institute, offering educational and enrichment programs for the public. It is the first major construction on the grounds since the 1994 opening of Seiji Ozawa Hall, which it will supplement.

Mirroring a national trend, the 2017 audience continued to favor popular over classical concerts. Pop stars like James Taylor and Sting outdrew BSO programs unless they featured a star on the order of Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell.

Against 15 rock, pop, jazz and Boston Pops programs, 22 classical concerts in the Shed, including the ever-popular Tanglewood on Parade, drew 42 percent of the total 350,014 attendance. Classical presenters have to fight to attract and hold audiences in these lucratively pop-oriented times.

Two imaginative new series enlivened the Tanglewood summer. In collaboration with Mass Audubon, four days of bird walks, talks and music were initiated and presided over by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. You had to be an early bird (ahem) to enjoy the dawn walks at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

In a different vein, pianist Emanuel Ax curated and presided over six chamber concerts under the rubric "Schubert's Summer Journey." The journey extended to later pieces composed under the influence — occasionally hard to detect — of the master.

The summer was also Tanglewood's first with composer, conductor and pianist Thomas Ad s, as the BSO's "artistic partner," providing a spark in all three areas of expertise. The taste of his compositions whetted the appetite for his intriguing opera "The Exterminating Angel," broadcast in the fall in the Met's "Live in HD" series.

While "Rheingold" was a monumental success, two other Tanglewood stagings went awry: the BSO's enacted version of Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music, and the Emerson quartet's attempt to re-create Shostakovich's troubles under Stalin. In both, music took a back seat to heavily amplified, often impenetrable narratives.

Elsewhere on the Berkshire scene, South Mountain struck gold with the discovery of the Calidore String Quartet, one of a host of excellent young quartets that seem to pop up day by day. Aston Magna expanded its regular season to six programs and tested the autumn waters with a sequel. The Boston Early Music Festival scored a comedy hit with a mash-up of two Pergolesi operas.

For dada-like comedy and bafflement, nothing could touch "Frankenstein!," a monster-driven "pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra" by Heinz Karl Gruber. It came to Simon's Rock in a lively performance by The Orchestra Now, made up of advanced students from Bard College, Simon's Rock's parent. Haydn's Symphony No. 104 ("London") rounded out the stimulating program.

At Williams College, the mixed student-professional Berkshire Symphony continued to offer music-making at a near-conservatory level. A performance of Bartok's rarely heard Viola Concerto, with Hsin-Yun Huang as soloist, was outstanding.


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