The Summer Music Season: Bring It On

Jun 9, 2016

It has always been my belief that the summer music season is so irresistible because it combines two of life’s most attractive features: (1) summer, and (2) music.

In our part of the world, we are blessed with multiple high-quality examples. As a new season begins, here are a few of the more notable:

Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts

This is the Tanglewood of music festivals. You can talk about your Wolf Traps, your Ravinias, your Saratogas. But this is the template – this magically inviting greensward where the friendly ghosts of Copland and Bernstein dwell, along with -- over there behind those tall hedges -- the more venerable ghosts of Hawthorne and Melville.

This place is, of course, primarily the warm weather home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though it is also a mecca of chamber music and solo recitals.

But it’s also a place where the next generation of musical titans is always being groomed, via the Tanglewood Music Center (close your eyes at a TMC orchestra concert and tell me that you can say for sure it’s not the BSO) and the unique Boston University Tanglewood Institute, a program for high school kids, this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The customary roster of star soloists will file through during the summer: Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, Yefim Bronfman, etc., etc., joined by an equally impressive tag-team of conductors (some of whom were trained here), including Charles Dutoit, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Stephane Deneve, et al.

I’m not sure what it means – nothing culturally ominous, I hope – but Tanglewood’s roster of pop/rock performers has been quietly growing of late, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This year’s group includes such far-flung practitioners as Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan with Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, James Taylor (an annual fixture), Chick Corea, and Brian Wilson – the latter traveling with his multi-national retinue in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. (Aside: I wonder what kind of odds Vegas would have given you -- back in 1966 when that album was released to mixed and in some cases quizzical reviews -- that the 37-minute LP would be marked a half century later by a raucous, celebratory global tour.)

I think I need to point out one additional, hard to categorize event: on August 14 (a rare Sunday evening performance) Tanglewood offers Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret, an evening of jazz, cabaret, tango, and music theater numbers drawn from the naughtily anything-goes club scene of 1920s and '30s Weimar Republic. Humphries is the Australian comic visionary who gave the world Dame Edna Everage, now retired. (Edna, not Humphries.)

Cultural footnote: I believe this may be the first time a Tanglewood concert has come with a parental advisory.

Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in Norfolk, Connecticut

Another place with high-profile ghosts, in this case the likes of Kreisler, Sibelius, and Rachmaninoff.

I used to notice, or think I noticed, a certain distinctive sartorial standard out here, as opposed to some of the other warm-weather music spas. That is, the Norfolk regulars tended to be more of your, say, seersucker and linen partisans, as opposed to the cargo shorts and New Balance folks. But as with everything, homogenization eventually wins out.  

A Norfolk Chamber Music Festival performance.
Credit Bruce Frische / Yale University

A Norfolk Chamber Music Festival performance.
Credit Bob Handelman / Yale University

I will say that Norfolk’s audiences, whatever they’re wearing, always seem especially alert and knowledgeable, musically speaking. I sometimes see pocket scores in the hands of people who don’t look like students.

A cool feature of the Norfolk festival is the Young Artists’ Performance Series (YAPS), dotted throughout the season and featuring the immensely talented fellows of the program. These concerts are generally free.

Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York

Tiny little Cooperstown (population 1,852) is a place of multiple enchantments, but two above all: The National Baseball Hall of Fame, and this airy little 900-seat bijou of an opera house, just a couple of well-struck fungoes down Route 80.

The Glimmerglass Festival's Alice Busch Opera Theater.
Credit Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival
The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of "Odyssey."
Credit Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival

So you can contemplate the career of George Brett in the afternoon and enjoy a rising young soubrette in the evening.

The main stage productions this year are: “La Boheme,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Thieving Magpie,” and “The Crucible,” Robert Ward’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1962 opera, based on the Arthur Miller play.

Tucked in throughout the summer are some nice little bonus attractions, such as a recital by Deborah Voigt, a conversation between Jamie Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and a conversational session with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose hobbies include opera and saving the country.

Final Curtin

The American soprano Phyllis Curtin was always one of those artists who was deeply appreciated and admired by people in the music business, but who was never quite a star in the wider world. 

Phyllis Curtin.
Credit National Endowment for the Arts / YouTube

There were a lot of reasons for this, including, apparently, the fact that a young Beverly Sills elbowed her way past Curtin and into the spotlight at New York City Opera, when both women were starting to make their operatic mark in the early '60s.

But Curtin’s legacy is secure. Among other things, she created the role of Susannah in Carlisle Floyd’s now-celebrated opera of the same name. She also performed – and frequently premiered – a vast amount of contemporary music, most of it American. And, when her performing days wound down, she earned acclaim as a teacher and administrator at Yale and Boston University. Her masterclasses at Tanglewood, which she offered for 51 seasons, were legendary and helped launch the careers of Dawn Upshaw and Cheryl Studer, among many others.

Curtin died June 4 at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She was 94.

Reach Steve Metcalf at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.