Classical music goes for substancein 2016

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By Andrew L. Pincus

Special to The Eagle





First, Andris Nelsons announced his intention to extended his Tanglewood stay to four weeks.

Next, the Berkshire Opera Festival made its debut with a well staged and sung "Madama Butterfly."

Then, South Mountain received the Award for Extraordinary Service to Chamber Music from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The three events within seven weeks this year pointed the way for classical music in the Berkshires. Despite audience demand for celebrity artists and pop, an emphasis on substance remains essential for musical institutions' relevance.

There were other notable events during the 2016 season. High among them was violinist Joshua Bell's superb recital as a benefit for the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. But concerts like his are one-off affairs, part of an arts-entertainment mix. Developments like the three mentioned above make a long-range difference for musicians, audiences and a community that prides itself on its culture.

Classical music ("classical" here also encompassing opera) plays to the brain as well as heart and gut. Especially in the political arena, the country lately has shown a lot of gut response but a notable shortage of brainpower.

That's why the award to South Mountain looms so large. Classical music doesn't get any purer than it does at this Pittsfield shrine. In five weekly concerts beginning in late summer, it presents chamber music without gimmicks, technology or even comfortable seating. You hear mostly front-rank trios, quartets and quintets, and that's it. The series is so traditional that you can sometimes wish for a touch of the adventure and occasional craziness of Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music.

Tanglewood came out the winner when Nelsons walked out on Germany's Bayreuth Festival in an artistic imbroglio last summer. He extended his Tanglewood commitment from two to three weeks this year and will go up to four weeks in 2017.

There is a significant difference when the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director is in town. It's evident not just when he's on the podium but also in the quality of the playing when guests take over. His closing-day Beethoven Ninth may have been ponderous but elsewhere during the season - in his Mahler Ninth, for example - his performances probed the heights and depths of expression. The breadth seems paradoxical in a conductor who in person seems reticent and almost boyish.

Every summer has its ups and downs for Tanglewood. Every summer, attendance for pop and Pops outruns attendance for classical. Every summer, BSO programming is built around chestnuts and celebrity artists to satisfy the public's cravings. Yet every summer, the programming is freshened by ventures off the beaten path, such as John Adams' riotous "Harmonielehre" last summer.

For combined adventure and excitement, however, nothing could top a run of three concerts in four nights in Ozawa Hall. First up was the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, the summer's Koussevitzky Artist, in a brilliant Stravinsky-Tchaikovsky program with Gil Shaham as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Two nights later, Shaham returned in a program of Bach's six solo violin sonatas and partitas. Next night, Dutoit led a magical - in both senses of the term - performance of Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale."

These weren't blockbuster events to pull the crowds in. They were the kind of thing that enriches musical life and make you want to shout, "Hear this! Hear this!" In the Festival of Contemporary Music, a program pairing George Benjamin's "Dream of the Song," in its American premiere, and Messiaen's "Turangalila" Symphony lent similar appeal.

Also for enrichment, the Berkshire Opera Festival's staged productions, along with Nelsons' plans for more concert opera at Tanglewood ("Das Rheingold" next summer), should help to fill a gap in musical programming. Wading in where two previous opera companies have foundered, the new troupe needs to sharpen its orchestral playing. But overall, its "Butterfly" production was solid and made good use of the Colonial Theatre's facilities. Three productions are planned next year, according to an early announcement.

In other features of the closing year, the Emerson String Quartet, launching its 40th anniversary season, continued to rule the roost among quartets with four Berkshire appearances - one at Williams College, two at Tanglewood and one at South Mountain. The younger Dover quartet is right up there in the same league, as its South Mountain concert once again showed.          

The Berkshire Symphony continued to lend interest to the colder months. Its performance of Bernstein's "West Side Story" Suite was a sizzler. And the Met's HD opera series remained an enhancement, culminating in the shimmering mystery of Kaija Saariaho's "L'amour de loin" this month.          

The year, alas, was also marked by the deaths of three Tanglewood stalwarts, violinist Joseph Silverstein, soprano Phyllis Curtin and cellist Jules Eskin. Music moves on but their contributions as performers and teachers endure.

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