"They're on fire," stated the Boston University music professor, a man who has heard countless recitals and is not given to overstatement. Those whom he uncharacteristically found on fire were the hundred-plus musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (known as the BSO). The time was mid-August. The place was Tanglewood, the orchestra's summer home in Western Massachusetts. The season was BSO's 134th.
The BSO packs everyone, musicians, instruments and helpers, hundreds of folks and tons of equipment, and moves them to the Berkshire Mountains for two months in the summer. A tradition going back decades, the orchestra performs a packed schedule of outdoor concerts at the Tanglewood compound that sprawls around many beautiful acres in the town of Lenox. Music goers hear the orchestra under an enormous tent (the Koussevitzkky Music Shed) or bring picnics and listen on the surrounding lawn. Many take no chances and buy their tickets months beforehand.
I went to Tanglewood for the third time this summer, and it was a special time for the BSO because they have a heralded new conductor, Latvian-born Andris Nelsons. Nelsons, in his late thirties, is young to hold the directorship of a major symphony orchestra. He has reaped glowing reviews not just for his musicianship but for his evident pleasure in working with orchestra members (part of the body that hired him). The players, is is reported, like him--love him! (At the end of a major piece, Nelsons acknowledged the orchestra members section by section, smiling and shaking hands all the way).
Though his time at the BSO is still early, the orchestra has secured Nelsons's stay by extending his original contract to the year 2022.
If I've become an addict to the BSO, it's in part because my attendance at Tanglewood is embarrassingly easy. I get myself to western Massachusetts (the only unlikable part, as it means going by bus from Manhattan) where I join a packaged tour that includes four nights over a weekend and tickets to musical events on two nights and one morning and afternoon.
This summer had an extra shot of excitement because late in August, Nelsons and the orchestra members (plus a few kids), helpers, equipment, and staff head to Europe for a packed 16-day tour of 12 concerts. They start in London, end in Paris, and include Vienna and other cities in between. (Last year they did a similar tour in China.)
Our tour group had bonuses: demonstrations from three of the orchestra's instrumentalists (with some harrowing stories of the process of auditioning for the orchestra), and meeting the orchestra's stage manager whose current responsibility is to get scores of instruments safely packed and loaded onto cargo planes for the tour abroad. That includes mountains of things required to play the Mahler Sixty Symphony.
Besides the BSO, the Tanglewood campus houses the Tanglewood Music Center and its program for young musicians, more than a hundred, who are selected from all around the country and invited for the summer to live at Tanglewood. They study under well known teachers--Bernstein, Copland and others were part of that history--and they end their stay giving their own Sunday morning program in Ozawa Hall, a beautiful sun-filled structure on the campus. It's a unique pleasure to see young faces playing classical music, some original, some traditional, with plain devotion.
The traditional end of the BSO Tanglewood season is a Sunday afternoon performance under the shed of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Known throughout the world, that piece incorporates the symphony orchestra members plus more than a hundred expertly-trained singers in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (all singing without sheet music). Wonderful conclusion...nearly on fire.
Already well fed on so much exceptional music, our group had its final dinner at a restaurant on the Tanglewood campus Sunday night. Several people had been there before, and I heard a few saying they are already thinking of returning for the same tour next August. Sounds like a plan to me.
Stanley Ely writes about various cultural events in his book "Life Up Close, a Memoir" in paperback and ebook.