La Scena Musicale

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The 2009 Parma Verdi Festival

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni used to say that there is no need for a “Verdi Festival” because almost every day a “Verdi Festival” is being held in more than one of the five continents of the world. As a matter of fact, Parma, the capital of the province where Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813, has been organizing a top-notch Festival for several decades. It used to take place in early Junethat is, strategically after the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and before the many Summer Opera Festivals (35 in 2009) flooding Italy from late-June to mid-September.

Since 2005, Mauro Meli has been Superintendent of Parma’s Teatro Regio and of the Verdi Festival and he invited Yuri Temirkanov to be the musical director of both organizations. In 2006 a program was undertaken to make Parma “the European music capital” by activating a new auditorium (for symphony and chamber music) and the many precious small theatres in the surrounding towns and even villages (first of all the Teatro Verdi in Busseto, near Le Roncole, the hamlet of only a few homes where Verdi was actually born). International collaborations were developed through co-production and tours. Finally, the Festival was moved from early June to October, Verdi was birth-month. Every day of October in Parma Verdi has a Festival event: a fully staged opera to highlights in concert to screening of films based on Verdi’s work. The whole town has become a part of the Festival, with exhibitions, shows and performances everywhere.

All this activity requires a great deal of financing, and the money had been forthcoming for a few years from the Central and Local Governments, a major State owned company and from local enterprises. But, recently, the economic finance crisis has put a major halt on funding. This year, Meli has had to make do with a much smaller budget, resulting in a lean program (see only two fully staged operas, the Requiem Mass (considered by many as Verdi’s 27th opera), and concerts and highlights from all the other 25 operas.

This review focuses on the three major events: the Requiem Mass and the fully staged productions of I Due Foscari and Nabucco. The Requiem opened the at the Cathedral. It is well known that Verdi was an atheist as many Italian Risorgimento intellectuals were; their atheism stemmed largely from their opposition to the Papal Kingdom as well as from the goal of having Rome as the capital of a united Italy, not of a Pope’s State. Verdi’s letters reveal that he was a tormented atheist with many doubts about the meaning of existence and the after-life. The Requiem Mass can be considered a melodrama-style search for these deep philosophical answers. Its central part (Dies Irae) is a long operatic act with the tender Lacrimosa, a meditation on human fragility, as a conclusion. Not even the final Libera me solves these doubts. The orchestra was conducted by Lorin Maazel, who had to fly into Parma to replace a suddenly sick Yuri Temirkanov. Even though Maazel had no time for a proper rehearsal, the orchestra and the chorus (under Martino Faggiani’s direction) gave the proper dramatic colour to the score and provided the required support to the soloists. Francesco Meli has thickened his voice in the last few years, but kept a very clear timbre and a pure emission; he might become a Carlo Bergonzi of the future. Daniela Barcellona is a true force of nature; she did balance her powerful voice with an excellent fraseggio and displayed a great skill to ascend to high tonalities with ease and to descend to grave tonalities with the same ease. Alexaneder Vinogradov is a good, but not memorable, Russian bass. Svetla Vassileva seemed not quite apt for the role: in the last few years she has taken roles not fully in line with her specific vocal endowment, with evident effects now. Her volume is small and she has difficulties with the low notes and pushes excessively with the acute. Being next to Barcellona did not help as it exposed her limits.

Much beloved by Verdi’s fans, Leo Nucci (now almost 68 years old) played the protagonist of both I Due Foscari and Nabucco. The latter is a widely performed opera whereas I Due Foscari has the record of being the shortest and one of the least staged Verdi melodrama. It was revived in 1968 in a Rome Teatro dell’Opera production that travelled as far as the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is a dark opera, based on an even darker poem by Byron, that deals with power intrigues in 15th Century Venice. Jacopo is unfairly condemned to permanent exile by the Council of Ten, the highest governing body in Venice; in spite of Lucrezia’s efforts and pleas, his father cannot overturn the decision; Jacopo commits suicide and Francesco is ousted by his rivals. There are only three characters of dramatic and vocal relevance: the old doge, Francesco Foscari (Leo Nucci), his son Jacopo (Roberto De Biaso) and his daughter-in-law Lucrezia Contarini (Tatiana Serjan). There is almost no actionbut a lot of difficult singingon the stage because nearly the entire plot develops behind the scene.

Joseph Francioni Lee (stage direction) and William Orlandi (stage set) provide an intelligent solution: the three acts are performed with only a short intermission and there is as much action as the libretto provides. The stage direction and the sets are traditional but effective. Nucci and Serjan overrode the rest of the cast in tremendously difficult roles requiring considerable vocal agility and strong volume. De Biaso was good but at the end of the performance appeared clearly tired. Fine, but not exceptional, was Donato Renzetti’s baton.

Only a few words on Nabucco. The Daniele Abbado production is nearly 10 years old and was seen last year in Reggio Emilia (only 50 miles from Parma). It is a late 20th Century blockbuster with Jews in modern attire and the Babylonians in Hollywood-style costumes. Leo Nucci’s receives the lion’s share of the applause, closely followed by Dmitra Theodossiou; they are experienced professionals and know all the tricks to please the audience, even emphasizing certain moments of Verdi’s score. The young Michele Mariotti conducts with a swift allure. This production of Nabucco will be staged in Modena in February 2010 and in Japan next Summer.

Messa da Requiem


I due Foscari
Francesco Foscari LEO NUCCI,
Lucrezia Contarini TATIANA SERJAN

Stage sets and costumes WILLIAM ORLANDI


Nabucodonosor LEO NUCCI, GIOVANNI MEONI (18, 24, 28)
Il Gran Sacerdote di Belo ALESSANDRO SPINA

Stage sets and cistumes LUIGI PEREGO

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Wotan Takes Back The Ring

by Janette Griffiths

Richard Wagner dispatches the god Wotan, his most complex, conflicted and, therefore, fascinating character in the Ring, on the penultimate day of the Tetrology. On day three Siegfried, the troubled god, traverses the earth’s ‘broad back’ disguised as the wise and weary Wanderer. The lumbering young lummox of a hero that RW created in Siegfried splits the old man’s spear in two, destroying Wotan’s powers. He retreats. From then on it’s down to his daughter, Brunnhilde to sort out the ensuing mess.

This has always struck me as an eccentric bit of story-telling: create a charismatic character, make us think it is his story, then get rid of him. Any Hollywood script guru would tell you this is dramatic folly.

Nobody would dare change a note or syllable of the old German genius’s epic, of course. But in Seattle’s third outing of its 2001 ‘green Ring’, Greer Grimsley’s tireless, commanding Wotan/Wanderer dominated the cycle—despite that third day departure. When Grimsley first sang the role in the 2005 Seattle production, I was struck by his secure technique, stamina, vocal power and beauty of tone not unlike that of the great George London. This was a world-class performance, so Covent Garden please take note: next time Bryn Terfel pulls out of a Ring because his kid has broken a finger, try calling on this great American bass-baritone.

And then as Fricka there is Stephanie Blythe —probably the finest mezzo-soprano singing on any opera stage anywhere in the world today. Had Wagner given the Goddess of marriage and family a greater presence in the cycle this Ring would have been Blythe’s. Seattle made the wise decision to make the most of her glorious, lush, sumptuous mezzo and dramatic presence by bringing her back as the Götterdämmerung Waltraute and even as Second Norn.

There were some significant newcomers to Ring roles this year , the most important being the arrivals of the American Janice Baird as Brunnhilde and the Danish Stig Anderson as Siegfried. The tall, slim Baird looks wonderful and is a fine actress; she has spectacular high notes and can create great dramatic excitement. She was, however, let down by a wobbly middle range and some off-pitch singing, most notable, alas, in the Immolation scene.

Stig Anderson had been indisposed by a viral infection during the first cycle but had soldiered on. By the time I saw him in the second cycle his performance went from a worrying, weary-sounding start in Siegfried to a magnificently sung death scene. That’s quite an achievement in this thankless role that makes so many vocal demands but provides so few dramatic rewards.

Another key newcomer, Australian Stuart Skelton made a stunning debut as a lyrical, romantic and youthful Siegmund, his voice ideally suited to the role.

San Franciscan Denis Petersen’s first Seattle Mime was also a magnificent debut. It is a tribute to the immense acting and singing talents of Petersen and the returning Richard Paul Fink as Alberich that the comic scene between the two wretched dwarfs in the second act of Siegfried was one of the most memorable of the whole cycle.

Kudos also to Chorusmaster, Beth Kirchhoff . The great male chorus of Vassals in Götterdämmerung, Act 2 sounded fantastic: virile, powerful and they acted well too.

Robert Spano, returning to the Seattle Opera pit for his second Ring since 2005, gave us a sweeping, lyrical Ring let down just occasionally by some erratic French horns.

Director Stephen Wadsworth and designer Thomas Lynch have made few changes to their production. The ‘back to nature’ theme, so appropriate for the Pacific Northwest setting, remains a refreshing response to the many and varied, and invariably ugly European ‘concept’ Rings. One small quibble, and it takes us back to where we began with Wotan and Fricka: the Seattle team have decided that Fricka is not a shrew. That’s fine—Patrice Chereau came to the same conclusion in the Bayreuth Centenary production in 1976. But for my taste, Wadsworth has taken this idea a step too far. Wotan and Fricka constantly smooch, caress and gaze so moonily and sappily at each other that this writer started to wonder if they might not be better suited to a weekend at a Sandals resort for couples instead of going to live on Valhalla. But it’s a small flaw in what remains probably the loveliest Ring to be seen anywhere in the world.

DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN - Richard Wagner - Seattle Opera. Marion McCaw Hall
G.Grimsley, S.Blythe, RP Fink, M.Plette, A. Silvestrelli, G.Hawkins, K. V. Rensburg, J. Collins, M. Streijffert, D.Petersen, S Skelton, MJ Wray, J.Baird, S. Andersen. Dir: R.Spano. Dir.esc: S. Wadsworth. Designer: T. Lynch 17,18,20, 22 August.

  • 09 Rheingold rl 008a: Jennifer Hines (Flosshilde), Michèle Losier (Wellgunde), and Julianne Gearhart (Woglinde), with Richard Paul Fink (Alberich). © Rozarii Lynch photo
  • 09 Walkure cb 260: Greer Grimsley (Wotan). © Chris Bennion photo
  • 09 Siegfried cb 161: Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Dennis Petersen (Mime). © Chris Bennion photo
  • 09 Gott rl 250: Gordon Hawkins (Gunther), Janice Baird (Brünnhilde), Stig Andersen (Siegfried), and Marie Plette (Gutrune), with supernumeraries and members of the Seattle Opera chorus. © Rozarii Lynch photo

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mozart Mistreated at Aix-en-Provence Festival

At the festival of Aix-en-Provence, now in its sixty-first year, the final installment of Wagner’s Ring, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, has hogged the spotlight. Nevertheless, Mozart has always been at the core of the Festival repertory and the new production of Idomeneo did look good on paper. The opera has 6 performances, from June 4 through 17, in the traditional venue, the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace in Aix.

Director Olivier Py has been heaped with praise for his work at Geneva’s opera for the past several years. Recently appointed to head the top Odéon–Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris (where the great Giorgio Strehler did much of his best work) he seemed a theater god who could do no wrong. This lumpy, limping production, however, suggests a serious case of clay feet.

First seen on stage are well-dressed African boat people (the Trojan prisoners in the libretto) who are menaced by AK-47 bearing men in black for no apparent reason. The story-telling did not subsequently improve. The use of massive amounts of structural steel led one critic to suggest that it was like Mozart meeting Gustav Eiffel. Actually, it was Eiffel who consistently demonstrated how light and graceful steel structures could be. Py’s “heavy metal” approach was garishly lit and oppressive to the eye. The ungainly sections twirled on wheels and, during duets, couples were compelled to sing while ascend stairs and opening doors all the while negotiating Mozartian rapids. The usually-cut ballet sequences (no choreographer was credited in the program) had half-naked young men camping it up when they were not pretending to dismember each other, reminding me of Madonna’s back-up dancers on tour.

It was not great vocal night when the singer with the only real feel for Mozartian style was the Arbace. Very impressive here, young Xavier Mas is clearly one to track. In the title role, tenor Richard Croft (Mozart’s 1789 tenor version was used) often had fine moments and his "Fuor del mar" was well received. However, his singing was strained when the music went “forte” and beyond. French tenor Yann Beuron, as Idamante, has had his voice fill out and thicken these past years and, while still lovely, it no longer has ease and agility. The talented Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser impressed as Ilia but, as with the decor, less steel would have been preferred.

When the grand Mireille Delunsch first descended the staircase as Elettra there was electricity in her voice that demanded attention. But, reaching stage level and directorial requirements - silent-screen gesticulations that would have embarrassed Theda Bara - all hope of a definitive character vanished. Later, during her final scene, there actually was a bucket of blood and she went ahead with the sponge bath, putting to rest the French idea of “du trop.” The Neptune - almost always on stage waiving his trident - was wearing what appeared to be a Woolworth’s bargain Halloween costume.

The singing, while not up to highest festival standards, served the music and Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble contributed a strong orchestral underpinning with their traditional gusto. A few orchestral sour notes could be attributed to the changing humidity as night falls - a traditional problem with outdoor concerts. This opera written when Mozart was only 25 year has been receiving much deserved attention in recent years; for instance, a fine new production of Luc Bondy at the Paris Opera. The Aix production, however, broadcast throughout Europe on the night I saw it, July 10, is not likely to induce a flood of ticket request for next season. This is an extraordinary opera but marred by cumbersome staging.

- Frank Cadenhead

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Festival Montréal baroque, du 25 au 28 juin

Pour sa grande fête traditionnelle de cette année, le Festival Montréal baroque a concocté un menu bien particulier. Comme plat principal, la très belle musique de Purcell dont on célèbre cette année le 350e anniversaire de naissance. Selon la légende, la mort prématurée du célèbre compositeur aurait été causée par le chocolat. Il n’en fallait pas plus pour que l’on utilise ce thème attrayant pour illustrer les différents plats au menu musical. Et le choix n’était pas facile à faire dans les différentes approches chocolatées.

Le Millefeuille au chocolat illustre bien The Fairy Queen, le spectacle choisi pour le lancement du festival. Changeant continuellement de place, de personnage et de costume, comédiens et chanteurs étaient fort occupés dans une délirante mise en scène de Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. La merveilleuse musique de ce semi-opéra, interprétée par La Bande Montréal Baroque, a été composée sur un livret adapté du Songe d’une nuit d’été, de Shakespeare. Et la magnifique partition est remplie d’humour et d’imagination. Même si une partie du texte a échappé aux francophones, dont l’oreille n’est pas habituée à Shakespeare, le grand talent des chanteurs et des comédiens du Repercussion Theatre n’a pas manqué de faire crouler de rire la salle entière. L’impressionnante distribution comprenait entre autres : Suzie LeBlanc, Monika Mauch, Laura McLean, Charles Daniels et Nathaniel Watson. Sous la direction de Mathias Maute, suivait le traditionnel défilé à l’extérieur, accueilli avec soulagement par la foule heureuse de prendre l’air, après avoir souffert de la grande chaleur qui régnait à l’intérieur.

Le premier concert de samedi soir, sous le titre Oh Henry! était consacré en grande partie à deux odes : L’Ode sur la mort d’henry Purcell de Blow et l’Ode Arise my Muse de Purcell. Cette dernière, composée pour l’anniversaire de la reine Marie est demeurée inachevée. Charles Daniels l’a terminée et est venu en faire la présentation. Les altos Daniel Taylor et Matthew White chantaient dans les deux pièces. Monika Mauch, Pascal Bertin, Charles Daniels et Nathaniel Watson les ont joints pour la seconde, accompagnés par l’Ensemble Caprice. Le concert débutait par l’entrée dramatique d’une procession d’instruments à vent et timbales, interprétant l’impressionnante March & Canzona, une musique funèbre pour la reine Marie. Il se terminait de la même façon, par la sortie des musiciens.

On avait choisi le Chocolat blanc pour le concert du Studio de musique ancienne qui présentait des compositions religieuses de Purcell. Sous la direction de Christopher Jackson, le SMAM a interprété sept Church anthems, dont le premier, Blow up the trumpet, écrit pour deux ensembles de dix voix, a été qualifié de véritable tour de force.

Commencé dans l’allégresse, le Festival se terminait dans la tragédie. Sous le titre Death by chocolate, l’Ensemble Masques interprétait le véritable opéra de Purcell, Didon & Énée, dont la bouleversante plainte de Didon demeure un des plus beaux airs de l’histoire de la musique. Dans une salle remplie à craquer et malgré le peu de moyens à leur disposition, musiciens et chanteurs ont présenté une magnifique prestation dans une mise en scène fort honnête de Pierre Saint-Amand. L’ensemble instrumental possède une belle sonorité au style baroque impeccable. Par les longues dissonances avant le lamento final, les musiciens ont fait ressortir la beauté de cette musique. La viole de gambe produisait des gémissements, donnant le ton à l’aria de Didon qui suit et devrait nous tirer des larmes, ce que Vicki St-Pierre a presque réussi à produire. Dans le rôle d’Énée, le baryton Dion Mazerolle a parfois un peu trop d’éclat, mais la fin du deuxième acte a été superbe. Tous les chanteurs possèdent une belle sonorité, mais il faut mentionner la réussite du chœur des sorcières, très convaincant par son cynisme et son sarcasme.

Les boulimiques avaient encore beaucoup à se mettre sous la dent. Entre autres, un concert du Flanders Recorder Quartet le vendredi soir et, le samedi, une soirée dansante qu’accompagnaient le Quatuor Franz Joseph et cinq autres musiciens. Les lève-tôt pouvaient se rendre au fameux concert présenté à 7 heures le matin du dimanche. Plusieurs autres activités étaient présentées en après-midi. Et pour les festivaliers qui voulaient échanger leurs impressions et rencontrer les artistes, le rendez-vous se situait au Café À Propos. Chaque représentation était suivie d’une dégustation de chocolats à la sortie. Une dégustation qui complétait joliment la soirée. A sweet ending !

Renée Banville


Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Tanglewood" Revisited: Basking in the Beauty of the Berkshires

It has been years since I visited Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This year, with some encouragement from friends, Marita and I decided it was time to go back. We traveled from the Eastern Townships of Quebec – where we can usually be found at this time of year – taking a scenic route via secondary roads through Vermont so that we could visit Stowe for the first time.

We had an excellent lunch on the backyard patio of the Whip restaurant, part of the Green Mountain Inn in Stowe, and marveled at the breathtaking ski slopes all around us. We arrived in Lenox about 5:00 pm and checked into the Yankee Inn on Route 7. It’s a very ordinary motel but thanks to the crush of music-lovers from Boston, New York and almost everywhere else, they can charge $225 per night!

In Lenox, we joined our friends for dinner at a new restaurant called the Firefly – a little rushed because we had to make the BSO concert at 8:30 pm – but what we sampled was first-rate. Marita raved about a terrific gorgonzola penne; not as good as a now legendary pasta of the same description enjoyed in Trinidad, of all places, years ago, but excellent nonetheless.

The "Rolls Royce" of American Music Festivals

Surely Tanglewood must be considered the "Rolls Royce" of all American summer music festivals. It started the trend in the mid 1930s, and it stands today as a model of how such things should be done. Not only is it the summer home of one of the world’s great orchestras – the Boston Symphony - it is also a music school which perennially attracts the crème de la crème – both teachers and students. To make the argument even stronger, Tanglewood sits on some of the prettiest real estate in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts.

Incredibly, this mecca of music-making was conceived and inaugurated by conductor Serge Koussevitsky in 1936, during the depths of the depression. Shortly after its establishment, America was engulfed in a world war. The festival closed shop during the war years; rationing of rubber, steel and gasoline meant that few Americans had the means to travel hundreds of miles to a music festival. Fortunately, Tanglewood outlived the war and remains today a marvel of imagination and inspiration.

I never had the pleasure of attending Tanglewood as a student – following in the footsteps of the likes of Bernstein, Foss, Abbado, Maazel, Ozawa, Dohnányi, Mehta, Michael Tilson Thomas and so many others – but I was often a member of the audience in the 1970s. I recall with great joy a performance of a lean and lively Messiah and a thrilling Elgar First Symphony conducted by Sir Colin Davis and a resounding and mesmeric Berlioz "Requiem" conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Then there was Scott Joplin’s "Treemonisha" conducted by Gunther Schuller. I also loved the Prelude concerts with members of the Boston Symphony playing chamber music, and not least of all, the numerous events put on by students at the Berkshire (since renamed the “Tanglewood”) Music Center. These gifted young people invariably played with remarkable skill and enthusiasm.

Toronto Symphony’s Maestro Peter Oundjian Guest Conductor

Peter Oundjian conducted the Boston Symphony at the Tanglewood Shed our first night there, with Joshua Bell playing Chausson’s Poème” and Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. As a former violin soloist himself, Oundjian was an ideal accompanist, especially since Bell played with a lovely but somewhat unpredictable improvisatory quality. According to the program notes, the Chausson was last heard at Tanglewood in a performance by the same Joshua Bell in 1999. Few other violinists play it these days but it remains a unique, brooding masterpiece. We had good seats in about the 10th row on the extreme right of the stage. Not enough violins given our seat locations but otherwise very good sound.

Incidentally, famed architect Eliel Saarinen submitted the original plans for the Shed back in 1936, but the plans were too elaborate and too costly so the Boston Symphony settled for something much more modest from local Stockbridge engineer Joseph Franz. The Shed we enjoy today is still pretty much the handiwork of Franz, and he deserves much of the credit for its surprisingly good acoustics.

Earlier in the concert Oundjian had conducted Ravel’s “Alborado del gracioso” and after intermission led a very good performance of the familiar Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Particularly impressive was the tenor tuba solo in a very slow Bydlo; more expressive than I have ever heard it although there were some slips near the end. “The Great Gate of Kiev” was also slow and a little ponderous but the climaxes at the end with resplendent bells were spectacular.

After the concert, we made our way backstage to say hello to Peter, whose father had occasionally attended my concerts in Toronto.

Good Eats, Pouring Rain, and Shattered Hopes for Great Golf!

We had breakfast the next morning in a fine and very popular bakery-restaurant in Lennox called Haven. I loved the samplings of apple cake and the blueberry ‘something’ hot out of the oven, served free to patrons waiting in the food line. The service is cafeteria-style but none the worse for that. The weather in this unusually wet summer was nice enough to sit outside. The manager was much amused to see me heading out with a latte in one hand and a bottle of ketchup in the other. “Was I starting a new fad - latte with ketchup - yet another specialty coffee?”

Our friends had arranged golf for the men in our party at the Taconic Golf Club in Williamstown, about a 45-minute drive north on route 7. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. We drove up in pouring rain but it stopped soon after we arrived and we prepared ourselves to get a round in after all. After waiting an hour we started to play. The radar at the club indicated the rain cell had moved on and that clear weather would last through the afternoon. We got to the third hole and the rain came again, this time even heavier than before. The professionals play through rain and only give up in the face of thunderstorms, but there was so much water on the greens here that putted balls barely moved and nearly every fairway had large pools of water. The management at the Taconic Golf Club wisely closed the course for the rest of the day.

Mass MoCa – No, it’s not a Giant Cup of Coffee

With time on our hands we drove east to North Adams to visit the art gallery set up in an abandoned factory and known as Mass MoCa (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). North Adams was a factory town for most of its existence and this was a complex of 27 buildings, renovated when the factory gave up. The facility was built between 1872 and 1900 by Arnold Print Works, a textile printer. Thousands of people had jobs at the print factory in its heyday but times changed and the factory closed in 1942.

Sprague Electric Company, a capacitor manufacturer, re-opened the facility. Sprague flourished for many years but finally lost out to competition in cheaper markets and closed down in 1985. The town of 18,000 was devastated. All 4,000 jobs went to the southern states and then to the Third World. North Adams became a depressed area almost overnight.

The town remains a shadow of its former self but the once forlorn factory complex has been given new life as a vast and imaginative art gallery. At Mass MoCa there are rooms full of recent paintings and sculptures and several exhibits with an environmental angle. It was all stimulating and wondrous to behold in such an unlikely place.

Two of the curated exhibitions had special merit: “Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape” – contemporary artists giving us new insight into the world around us - and “Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China”, a timely show with all eyes on the Beijing Olympics this summer.

The Mass MoCa complex also has offices and restaurants and we had dinner in an eatery called Café Latino. Its menu was just as creative as its surroundings.

Fabulous Feydeau Farce at Famous Williamstown Theatre

After dinner, we made the short drive back to Williamstown for the Williamstown Theatre production of Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear” in a new version by David Ives. John Rando directed a fast-paced and very funny production with terrific sets and finely-tuned ensemble acting. Mark Harelik was particularly outstanding as both Victor Chandebise and Poche. There may never have been quite so many laughs in the disreputable Frisky Puss Hotel.

The Williamstown Theatre has been in business for 54 years and has seen the likes of Gywneth Paltrow, Blythe Danner – her mother – Christopher Reeve, Joanne Woodward, Frank Langella and many other New York and Hollywood luminaries over the years and under current artistic director Nicholas Martin it remains a summer theater of the highest quality. While the principal actors are all experienced professionals, the Williamstown Theatre Festival also offers training for hundreds of young people each season. In its way it is the theatrical counterpart of the Tanglewood - Tanglewood Music Center combination.

It was back to the Haven the next morning – this time for excellent pancakes with our Sunday New York Times - then back to Tanglewood.

Second Tanglewood Concert: Disappointing Sound and Substance
The plan was to have a picnic on the lawn before the concert. Rain was again in the forecast and the pessimists among us feared the worst. Fortunately, the rain held off until the concert began. No problem for us because we had tickets inside the Shed, but while we stayed dry, we were too far away from the stage to hear much music, especially from Yo Yo Ma in the Lalo Cello Concerto, a poor piece anyway. The conductor - Mexican-born Carlos Prieto - was in over his head. The orchestra sounded second-rate. The performance of Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances” lacked both fire and melancholy.

Prieto opened with selections from Albeniz’ “Iberia” in orchestrations by Arbos. These are genre pieces of no great distinction. Fine for a travelogue but not for a serious concert. But then this is Tanglewood - probably sounded just right if one were stretched out on the lawn with a glass of wine in hand, taking it in through the external sound system. The Shed seats 5,000 and the lawn another 18,000!

Lounging on the Lawn and Fine Dining in Great Barrington

After the concert we went back to our chairs on the lawn and chatted, a nice way to wind down and avoid the traffic jams as everyone tries to leave at once. Later, we drove down to Great Barrington ‘the back way’ on Hawthorne Road through Stockbridge for dinner at a superb restaurant also owned by the same people who run Café Latino. It is called Allium on Railroad St. Wonderful Spanish tempranillo called Torremoron. The manager/owner claimed to have visited the town where this wine is made. It was only $36 and it was rich and smooth. Marita had a tasty Turkish Lamb that rivaled a wonderful risotto praised by others at our table. We finished off with panna cotta and a selection of house-made ice creams.

Our Tanglewood trek this year came after an absence of more than twenty years and we got involved after all the plans were set in motion. We had a great weekend, but in retrospect we might have tried to plan it differently. After all, the musical highlight of the weekend was Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin” conducted by James Levine and starring Renée Fleming. Levine had to cancel due to kidney surgery but by all accounts Sir Andrew Davis filled in admirably. We were otherwise engaged with Feydeau in Williamstown.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Model

Tanglewood remains the unique musical paradise BSO conductor Serge Koussevitsky created more than 60 years ago. His successors have both honored his memory and added to its reputation. Physically, Tanglewood has grown over the years with the addition of more land and a second major concert facility, but the beauty of the site is remarkably unspoiled. The lawn seems as green and spacious as it ever was, and no signs of commercialism have been allowed to penetrate this musical oasis. No wonder the board of the Toronto Symphony is using Tanglewood as a model as it explores Niagara-on-the-Lake as a possible summer home.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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