And so, goodbye. After 46 years as a classical music critic for The Eagle, I put down my notepad and pen. I won’t be covering Tanglewood this summer. Or gigs beyond.
I haven’t lost my appetite for music. But after all those gigs night after night followed by the computer rush morning after morning, there comes a time when the body says, “It’s over. Give it up.
Music criticism may seem like a narrow specialty. Not entirely. Exploring and sharing the intricacies of great art is a challenge and a satisfaction. Everything from joy to sorrow, from love to death is in this music, waiting to be experienced more deeply.
Although I majored in music at Dartmouth and played clarinet and piano (both poorly), I had no intention of being a music critic. I had been editor at The Eagle for seven years in 1974 when then critic Jay Rosenfeld died (apparently after 55 years on the job).
Looking for a diversion, I volunteered for the extra duty and started working four weeknights and a few days in the office and spending the weekends covering Tanglewood or other musical assignments. For 11 years, I was able to manage both jobs. But Tanglewood was growing.
A GROWING CAMPUS
In 1975, when I arrived, there were no mid-week recital and chamber music series. There was no Bernstein campus, Ozawa Hall, or Linde Center for Music and Learning. Like today, there were eight weeks of three Boston Symphony concerts in the Shed, each with its own Prelude concert. There were student concerts and occasional recitals. But that was it.
The mid-week series started in the old theater and concert hall in 1978. Now you could hear one or more concerts up to six days and nights a week. From 1994, Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center, which followed in 2019, provided more modern venues. Both in terms of programming and audience, the dynamic has accelerated.
Compare that with the upcoming season. With Ozawa Hall, Linde and the 5,000-seat Shed in full swing, concerts, rehearsals, classes, talks and other presentations, some involving crossover attractions, are scheduled one after the other – until three a day – most days. It can be a dizzying array, with broad popular appeal, all preceded and followed by a hard-hitting popular artist season. Under the new management team led by President and CEO Gail Samuel, the BSO appears to be casting an ever wider net for the public.
Is this a critic’s dream or nightmare?
CHRONICLING THE HISTORY
At Tanglewood, I chronicled all this expansion of gigs and ownership, as well as the departure of two musical directors — Seiji Ozawa and James Levine — into disgrace, even disgrace. Outside of Tanglewood, I’ve toured with the BSO, freelanced for The New York Times and other publications, and covered the opening of Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Festival in Japan. Along the way, I’ve written three Tanglewood-inspired books about music and musicians. I was now so busy that after 11 years of dual employment, I quit as editor and went freelance.
Young Ozawa was bright and promising when he arrived at Tanglewood as manager of BSO in 1974. I arrived a year later, which means I’ve covered all but the first year of his 29-year reign. .
His last years unfortunately deteriorated. In 1996-97 he ousted the four highly respected executives of the Tanglewood Music Centre, the festival’s famed academy, accusing them of disloyalty. Protests and faculty resignations ensued. The discomfort seemed to spread. BSO performances have become routine. Ozawa quit soon after and left in 2002.
After an interregnum, Levine arrived, igniting the room with his programming and performances. Unfortunately, he followed with physical problems and rumors – later confirmed by an inquest – of sexual misconduct. The combination of passives got him in. After ever-increasing no-shows and cancellations, he was told to leave.
Not exactly the kind of behind-the-scenes machinations you’d expect at a festival known for its bucolic picnic scene on the lawn as the music from The Shed plays.
My reporting on the Ozawa spat led Clarence Fanto, then editor of The Eagle, and myself to undergo a BSO PR wringer, including a confrontation with Ozawa in Boston. I’m proud that my coverage — based on off-the-record sources, of probably the lowest point in Tanglewood’s history — has held up despite fierce denials. The music center, thankfully, has stabilized under new management.
Now it’s Andris Nelsons turn. In his eighth season as music director, he and the BSO still seem to be forging a partnership. Within the framework of the BSO’s partnership with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, he also took on the direction of the German orchestra. Meanwhile, Gail Samuel, who previously served as President of the Hollywood Bowl and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, took over from BSO Chairman and CEO Mark Volpe. Tanglewood is subject to further changes.
No one could be around Tanglewood during the Leonard Bernstein years without being aware of his dominance during his two-week residencies. With his hugs, his kisses, his cigarettes, his rehearsals and his personal requests, he practically took over the place. Excess reigned.
Bernstein could be hard to take with his demagogy, but his concerts with the student orchestra and the BSO were electric. Already dying, he could barely make it to the end of his last BSO gig, in 1990, which was also his last gig anywhere. His death was a great loss.
Looking Back: A Commanding Presence at Tanglewood – Andrew L. Pincus’ obituary of Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein and Ozawa were responsible for the four most memorable gigs I’ve heard at Tanglewood. Bernstein gave me my first live performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
To this day, Mahler’s Ninth is so sublime and so painfully haunted by death that I am both drawn to and repelled by it. After the revelation of Beethoven’s mass, I made a vow to listen to it at least once a year, on recording if not in concert. To me, it’s probably the greatest single work ever composed (you’re free to disagree).
Ozawa was masterful in two works by Benjamin Britten. He led the deeply pacifist “War Requiem” with a conviction born of his childhood in wartime Japan (he said he saw the pilot of an American fighter plane as he flew low). Likewise, Britten’s opera ‘Peter Grimes’, with alternating student casts, painted an unforgettable and anguished picture of the fate of the loner in society.
It takes a mixture of arrogance and modesty to be critical. You judge those who know more about music than you do, but through study and experience you can hope to broaden people’s understanding of great music. Agree or disagree with the critic is not the point. If I made people think about what they heard or were about to hear, I did my job.
To musical institutions upholding a great tradition in a time of COVID, I say: Keep up the good work. To musicians whom I may have offended: My apologies. To the readers who supported me: Thank you.