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An Intellectual Oasis

LAWRENCE BUDMEN returns to Tanglewood
to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra


Illuminated by pastoral greenery and the awesome beauty of the Berkshires, Tanglewood is more than just a venue where music is made. It is a state of mind, a cultural and intellectual oasis. The eclectic galleries and shops in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, USA act as a counterpoint to the performances on the sprawling Tanglewood campus. Conceived in the 1930s by Serge Koussevitzky as a summer home for the Boston Symphony and a music education center, Tanglewood continues to thrive under the BSO's current music director James Levine. This summer Levine was present on campus for most of the festival and devoted considerable time and effort to working with the gifted students of the Tanglewood Music Center. (This report will center on the concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra while a future piece will detail the varied activities of the music center.)

After three seasons under Levine, the Boston Symphony has definitely become his instrument. The orchestral sonority is lighter and airier. The plush string tone and exquisite winds have a touch of French élan. The brass section has mellowed; their tone is brilliant but never harsh. In many ways the orchestra now sounds closer to the way it did under Koussevitzky (at least as can be discerned from recordings). With three different programs on most weekends during the eight week Tanglewood season, the Bostonians work one of the most challenging schedules in the music world. Today the ensemble's standard is remarkably high; their music making consistent whether Levine or a guest maestro mounts the podium.

On 3 August 2007 wind and rain preceded the concert at the Koussevitzky Music Shed but Levine and his musicians were in top form for one of this conductor's typically ambitious programs. From the fierce opening chords of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, Levine exhibited Toscanini-like drive, the music proceeding with irreversible momentum; yet the sweetness and precision of the string playing exuded warmth on a chilly night. Nearly two hours later Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No 2 emerged with Gallic lightness which Levine spiced with reminders of the score's often bold harmonic ambiguity. Conducting with taut efficiency, Levine illuminated the layered textures of Ravel's instrumentation. (This performance reminded me of the classic recording by Levine's one time mentor George Szell.) In the initial 'Daybreak' section, the lush strings (led by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe) seemed to embody the music's cosmic sensuality. Elizabeth Rowe's pure, scintillating flute deftly traced the roulades of the 'Pantomime'. Levine upped the velocity level in a fiery 'Danse generale', abetted by agile brass. This exciting performance received prolonged applause and cheers.

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Copyright © 25 August 2007 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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