Tanglewood: The 75th Anniversary Schedule

Tanglewood is an icon. It’s totemic even for those unlucky folks who haven’t made the trip out to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer hideaway in the Berkshires. The sound of strings at Tanglewood is as quintessentially warm-weather New England as the crack of a bat at Fenway or the zip of a bass being reeled in on a quiet lake. Long live Tanglewood, and it has certainly lived long, because the institution turns 75 next year with the 2012 season.

Yesterday, the BSO announced their big 75th anniversary summer-long extravaganza, and while a noble array of events it is, one can’t help but feel a mild yawn at first glance. Many unsurprising names will make an appearance, such as James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Chris Botti, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and so on … all people who regularly sit in with the esteemed house band out in Lenox/Stockbridge and at Symphony Hall. If Tanglewood wants to celebrate its history by repeating it, then this schedule is a bonafide success. (In fact, they will literally repeat history on July 6, when the BSO reprises Tanglewood’s original program from the first performance, which took place on August 5, 1937.)

But hey, is this so bad? Of course not. (See first paragraph.) It’s not like I was expecting Lady Gaga to show up doing orchestra-abetted cover versions of that terrible new Lou Reed/Metallica album. Nor was I thinking that Ornette Coleman would surprise us by meshing the brass section with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Nor was I praying that Keith Lockhart would whoop it up with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw — those CMT studs will actually be fueling rowdy tailgates at the other end of the state at Gillette Stadium August 25. No, what we get is what we want out of Tanglewood: Classical music that guarantees solid enjoyment in the most verdant of settings.

And then, on closer review, there’s some very cool stuff here. Most obvious is the 75th anniversary gala to be celebrated on July 14. Good ol’ JT comes back from his July 4th weekend concerts for this one, and he’ll join Ma and Mutter, and Emmanuel Ax. Old friends John Williams and Keith Lockhart will conduct such bright classics like Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Good and familiar, sure, but somehow right, but what makes it cooler is that the next night, July 15, will usher in an unfamiliar conductor, Andris Nelsons of Latvia, who heads up the City of Birmingham Symphony. He only makes his subscription debut at Symphony Hall this January and his Tanglewood debut during the big July gala weekend. He and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will do one mightily radiant duo of a program: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms matched with Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.

Speaking of Brahms, German pianist Gerhard Oppitz will peform that composer’s complete solo piano works during the following week (July 18 and 19). Then the Berkshires get all Bayreuth with the all-Wagner day on July 21, featuring pieces from Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and the Ring. I really like Yo-Yo Ma’s Asian-classical group, the Silk Road Ensemble, so it’s nice to see them come through on June 22 and 24. There are more stars like Pinchas Zukerman on August 10, and even though I’m not fan, there are certainly plenty who will be thrilled by Bernadette Peters’s rare appearance here, where she’ll swing around with Keith and the Pops gang on July 8. Add in that there’ll be eight world premieres from folks like the regular contributors John Harbison and Gunther Schuller, as well as Andre Previn and bassist Edgar Meyer. But the coolest is the parade of star conductors that’ll waltz through the halls over those months: Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Christophe von Dohnanyi, Charles Dutoit, and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who’ll lead a night of Spanish music. I say “Olé” to all that, even if all these superstar maestros only heighten the fact that we still need a replacement for James Levine.

So hey, actually, it all sounds quite big in fact, and it’s a sourpuss who sighs and says, “Big whoop,” when most regions of the country would kill, bribe, and maim for this lineup. And just in case you’re still dubious about this illustrious history, the BSO will be releasing 75 digital streams — one for each day of the summer season — featuring historic events and performances over the last seven-and-a-half decades, and they’ll eventually be available for digital download. The BSO is pretty foresighted and generous with making their archives accessible and affordable, and here’s just another example of how we can re-teach ourselves not to take history for granted. And besides, when you get ho-hum about the fact that you get to see Yo-Yo Ma and the like every summer, that’s when you need to realize us that we’re spoiled, and that’s thanks to Tanglewood.