Thirty-five years living in Massachusetts, and I'd never been to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Happily, the chance came last night, and no subsequent visit will ever top it.
I'm spending a long weekend with friends who have a new house on a big pond in Otis, which is not very var from T'wood. Tickets had been arranged weeks before, and I vaguely remembered what was on the program; vaguely, as in "I think there's some Ravel . . . " All I knew was, I'd finally get to see what all the T'wood excitement was about, and there wouldn't be anything musically offensive like Ligeti, Lutowslawski, or *shudder* Arnold Schoenberg on the bill.
A morning Fycebykke post prompted a reply from fellow Lake Charles native Paul Hart Miller (PHM), who was going to be at the very same concert because Paul Groves would be singing the tenor solo in the Berlioz Te Deum. This is significant because Paul Groves and I were in the same Sunday School class at First Methodist, and the same third, fifth, and sixth grade classes at Oak Park Elementary School in Lake Charles. He is one of the few famous people to come out of Lake Charles, along with Tony Kushner and Fats Domino. (If you know of others, please inform.) I had not seen him in about 40 years. And I thought, "Well, it's certainly going to be Lake Charles Night at Tanglewood!"
Suddenly, a barrage of texts on my almost four-year-old flip phone. PHM said Paul wanted us to come backstage after the performance! I was sort of surprised; Paul and I were not really close as children, and we'd lost touch a long long time ago. I provided our names, and then called Mother, who was predictably just delighted, esp. as she was having "lunch with all the widows," many of whom are Paul Groves fans. What a choice tidbit of news to share!
Came the early evening, and the four of us in the house party loaded up the car with picnic provisions to drive through the green winding roads to T'wood. We drove in, we parked, we unpacked our gear and trooped onto the Lawn behind the Shed to enjoy a picnic of roast chicken, various salads, white wine, strawberries, and chocolate. Before eating, a friend made sure I saw everything: the Highwood estate, Ozawa Hall, the original Tanglewood estate of the Tappan family - everything. T'wood is like a tidy version of Interlochen*. I've never seen such well-maintained, velvety lawns, without a leaf or pine needle out of place.
Unsurprisingly, some picnickers treated Lawn picnicking seriously. Tables, chairs, silverware, china - that's basic. I'm talking elaborate linens, floral centerpieces, and candles. I particularly admired the pink candelabra dripping with crystals brought by one party. Wagons were used to tote in supplies by more than a few picnickers. At one time in my life I'd've been on the "Too much of a good thing is wonderful"* bandwagon, but now I was completely content that we kept it simple. We even had time to stow our gear back in the car before the start of the concert. Someone observed that the Lawn seemed less packed than at other concerts, possibly because the program included three rarely-performed works and no "crowd-pleasers"
Our seats were near the rear center of the Shed (Section 12, Row J, for you T'wood habitués out there), and we got settled about five minutes before the start of the concert. I noticed sitting a row or two ahead of us a woman wearing a small shopping bag of clear thick shiny plastic on her head. One of the handles was broken. I thought "How dada." A Jumbotron screen near us was alternately a help and a distraction.
Then out came Charles Dutoit, saturnine, eyes crinkling with mischief, to get us started with Stravinsky's chant funebre. I think this was my favorite of the three composiitons. Not only did it compare favorably to Firebird, I loved the story of its creation for a concert in memory of Stravinsky's teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and then its disappearance from the world for the next 118 years. It was rediscovered in a Russian archive year before last after all this time, and the parts discovered were those used for the world premiere, including signatures of the performers and corrections in Stravinsky's own hand!
Then Ravel's Piano concerto for left hand. The pianist came out dressed as one of the waiters: black button-down shirt and black trousers, and no tie. If Maestro Dutoit had removed his white dinner jacket, they'd've been dressed alike. I instantly remembered the words of Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein: "I suggest ya put on a tie!" A friend whispered to me "Well, it's summer," and I pointed out that all the men in the orchestra were wearing dinner jackets and ties. And they looked wonderful.
The concerto began rather heavy for the pianist - I wasn't quite sure what a left-hand-only work was going to achieve - but Ravel incorporated his delightful, light touches after all. I love Ravel - not just for La Valse, and not just because he dedicated it to my beloved Misia Sert - and it was beautiful to be introduced to an unfamiliar work.
Intermission! A dash for the bathroom, and then some confusion trying to connect with PHM . . . but then, the place seats thousands of people . . . and thanks to the miracle of text messaging, he and I did find each other in person and devise a plan for post-concert.
Then on to the Berlioz Te Deum. With the Tanglewood Festival Chorus filing in. I was irresistibly reminded of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and the gigantic chorus on stage at the Albert Hall with Rise Stevens. The lady choristers in that movie really knew how to wear white! Paul Groves came out looking Perfectly Proper in black tie. The Berlioz started off in just my style, but I confess my attention wandered here and there. The tenor soloist has very little to do until the penultimate movement, a prayer, that Paul interpreted with sensitivity and control. And then the great big finish. I don't follow along in these Latin texts very often, and Lord knows I've been to a lot of choral concerts with Latin texts in them, but I think this is the first one with "Judex" in it. #rare
Now PHM had given our names at the stage door, and given me instructions on where to go, but we ended up reaching him before he'd left the Shed, and he spirited us backstage the way he himself had been directed, through some sort of sound booth. I don't know what I expected backstage to be like there, but it was bright and white and narrow. We followed Paul slowly down a corridor, apparently impeding the progress of the entire Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which one lady chorister let me know about in No Uncertain Terms.
Then all we had to do was press flat against the wall at an intersection and wait not very long for the Hometown Tenor to open his dressing room door. And that launched a bit of commotion. Paul is Kind of a Big Deal, so there was a flurry of donors and choristers who wanted their moment with him, and a lot of photos were taken, including of Men of Lake Charles.
We had our share of reminiscences about First Methodist, and I was able to share Mother's greetings and her excitement about getting to communicate to his fans at home about me seeing his performance. A chorister popped by who knew PHM and who also works for my employer. The discovery that he and I had mutual acquaintances added to the somewhat chaotically pleasant nature of the visit.
I made my excuses and rejoined the house party, now quite ready to return. The drive home included a lot of discussion of the program, and technology that will eventually replace paper scores on music stands for musicians. We made it back home by 11 PM! Three cheers for shortcuts unknown to the general public.
How could any future trip to Tanglewood top this?
*I am in no hurry for Interlochen to get tidy. Frankly, these days it's a bit too tidy.
**Thank you, Mae West.