Tanglewood would make a great final resting place. Gently manicured nature, music constantly in the air, lavish picnics with kids playing harmless games.
Soft puffy clouds? Yeah, that too.
So when the Music Critics Association of North America’s annual meeting coincided with a visit to Tanglewood, the pastoral home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was easy to make travel plans. Not permanent ones, but happy ones.
The MCANA business of electing officers and conducting affairs took place in a multi-tasking environment. The BSO offered a concert presentation of Die Walküre over the weekend, and those performance were surrounded with events curated by the Tanglewood Learning Institute, a new BSO initiative, housed in the first building project on the grounds since Ozawa Hall in 1994.
The Linde Center—as the TLI is destined to be called—will engage more fully the already-engaged adult audience. A small performance space (Studio E), a well-stocked café, and two even more intimate rehearsal buildings are aimed at that captive audience.
“We will serve curious adults,” the new TLI director, Sue Elliott, said emphatically at a press conference, “we want to connect other pursuits with music. It starts with music, but it doesn’t stop there.”
The Linde Center Programs
The TLI ancillary programs vary. A weekend earlier in July explored Georgia O’Keeffe and her world; performances included a world premiere opera by Kevin Puts. A film weekend—highlighted by John Williams’s appearance (no surprise)—and the annual Festival of Contemporary Music will have curated events in August. Musicians and other artists, scholars and political figures will participate.
For this weekend, presentations in Studio E included a lunch with BSO music director Andris Nelsons and Christine Goerke (singing Brünnhilde this weekend); a fascinating presentation by Tanglewood director Tony Fogg and Jane Eaglen (a Brünnhilde on many occasions, who spoke eloquently about that role); Elliott herself giving two lengthy and insightful talks; and a presentation by pianist Jeffrey Swann.
All of those discussions examined specific topics germane to the appreciation of Wagner. But historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made the most popular presentation, presiding over a love-fest to an audience that spilled out generously onto the lawn behind Ozawa Hall. She reminisced voluminously on politicians she’s written about, and offered not-so-thinly veiled skewerings of other figures.
Goodwin’s speech was the most popular of the weekend, but the most informative presentations to the core group—MCANA, and the 100 or so other who had paid $399 for the complete Wagner weekend package (there were lunches)—came from Sue Elliott herself.
Elliott joins the upper BSO in the newly created position of TLI’s executive director. Her mandate sounds a lot like “let’s figure this out together.” The Linde Center will certainly have a huge summer presence. But additionally, the BSO plans to create new programming for Tanglewood—“Fall/Winter/Spring season,” Elliott said. The name needs work, and that ambition will seem mighty bold when cold weather descends on bucolic Lenox, but the resources are clearly there.
One sprawling building—a café, joined by a hallway to a flexible performance center that seats 250, has two smaller studio buildings close by. The Linde Center sits on the hill, out back of Ozawa Hall. As much as it will serve the “curious adults,” it will also create more rehearsal space—especially for sections and small ensembles. It will obviously be used for donor relations as well, and provides a welcome upgrade to Tanglewood’s food offerings.
To begin the TLI weekend, Elliott gave a long and enthusiastic master class in Wagner’s music and emotion on Friday morning. She talked mainly about transitions— “first moments,” she called them—and how Wagner colors and supports them during Die Walküre.
“Wagner can become a competitive sport”; “Can’t do the Ring with broad brushes, it’s details”; and “Wagner is slow, not long,” were some of her memorable anecdotes. Elliott will help shape the mission of the Linde Center, but she’s not going to stand by idly while others implement her ideas.
Tony Fogg, Tanglewood director and BSO artistic administrator, chaired a lunch discussion with Goerke and Nelsons. Most of that discussion centered on the roles, the stamina and artistry required to sing Wagner. The easy-going session was broken up frequently by Goerke—who could run for office—praising her colleagues, spinning out backstage yarns, and telling personal stories. At one point Nelsons offered Goerke a contract to sing an entire Ring cycle at Tanglewood in the future—words that spurred two dozen note-takers into action, but may be more hope than anything else.
Equally impressive, there were still more than 100 people who stayed after the lunch on Friday for more discussions. Mid-afternoon, soprano Jane Eaglen—not here to sing, as she now keeps a more modest schedule—shared some stories, and her ideas of the Wagner voice.
It was an artist session. Eaglen told two stories that revealed just how much of a prodigy she really was. After just two weeks of singing as a child, her teacher said, “You’re going to sing Brünnhilde someday.” In talking about her instrument, Eaglen also noted that at two years old, “I realized I could keep crying for longer than my mother could put up with it.” And so a career in performance began.
Elliott gave another extremely detailed talk on Saturday after lunch, focusing on brass playing, and especially Wagner’s special instruments, in Das Rheingold. The possibilities of a one-hour discussion about Steerhorns proved irresistible to Wagnerites, again drawing more than one hundred participants.
The MCANA group was invited to the final rehearsal for Die Walküre with Nelsons and the TMC Orchestra on Saturday morning. He was doing final prep, before the fellows played the three acts behind the starry soloists. Goerke was joined by soprano Amber Wagner, mezzo Stephanie Blythe, bass-baritone James Rutherford and others in the Walküre performances.
Nelsons stopped every few measures during the entire two-hour rehearsal (or more—the kids don’t belong to the union). He was working the details. Elliott had earlier describe the Ring cycle of “seventeen hours made of second-by-second moments,” and Nelson coached many of those moments in this rehearsal.
The BSO made a gesture toward the health of the players by limiting instrumentalists to two acts. Good thing too: the Shed was oppressively humid. The starry cast of singers—some of the greatest living Wagner voices—gave what amount to a master-class performance for audiences and the TMCO as well.
With at least two dozen of us reviewing in the audience, this space will stay clear of performance assessments. The three acts were spread out over two days, and that did seem like a just-right dose of Wagner, even with the weekend’s other activities. (Just one thing: Goerke really was weeping at the end of Act III.)
Best New Opera 2019: p r i s m
A centerpiece of the weekend meetings was the presentation of the annual MCANA award for best new opera. The choice was p r i s m, composed by Ellen Reid with libretto by Roxie Perkins. Perkins was there to accept the award, and Arthur Kaptainis represented the jurors.
A beautifully detailed report by Kyle MacMillan about the opera, a Beth Morrison Project which had a rolling premiere in Los Angeles and New York, can be found here https://classicalvoiceamerica.org/2019/07/24/mcana-award-for-best-new-opera/. p r i s m was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in music as well.
Press conference: BSO officials
MCANA executive board met Sunday morning, to elect officials and discuss affairs. At the close of the MCANA business meeting, Elliott, Fogg, and Volpe joined the music critics association for a moderated discussion in the Tappan House. The conversation began with the new initiatives at the TLI, and its target audience.
But over the course of a generous hour, the discussion strayed into the calamitous James Levine era at the BSO, educational outreach, the future of performance and other topics. Tony Fogg also talked about programming, emphasizing that he has already engaged some artists that he would not have considered because it fit the parameters of the TLI programs.
Speaking for myself, to hear respected executives like Volpe, Fogg and Elliott talk about their work with devotion and intensity helps ease some concerns about our art form. Volpe said passionately, “We’re learning too, at some level. But we want to attract new constituencies. We hope we are futuring the cause of music.”
Keith Powers covers music and the arts in greater Boston for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to firstname.lastname@example.org.