THE BLOG
09/02/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Air and Music

Around the enormous lawn as the sun set Friday night came a sprinkling of folks dressed as Dorothy or the Scarecrow or the Cowardly Lion. The reward for them and the other several thousand of us present, was an ingenious take on "The Wizard of Oz": the original film wit its musical score stripped away and replaced altogether, live by the Boston Pops under the baton of its youthful conductor Keith Lockhart. The movie started on a huge screen, the live music with it, and you'd think no one had seen the story before. Crowds picnicking on the lawn and sitting under the shed applauded at every happy moment and jeered when the Wicked Witch appeared. That film still a tear jerker after all these years? Ummm.

This was last weekend at Tanglewood, one of America's premier summer music festivals, in the bosom of the Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains. I had gone with a tour group of 50 others to hear "Oz for Orchestra" as well on Saturday night as Rachmaninoff's familiar Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and on Sunday afternoon the greatest of desserts, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. That choral group, some 150 strong, is known for performing in concert from memory.

Twice were we treated to the Sunday afternoon program, the actual performance and the full rehearsals Saturday morning. Rehearsals at Tanglewood are as much fun as actual performances. We watched singers and instrumentalists in jeans and shorts and had to transpose them mentally into a grand presentation in summer white shirts and bowties the next day. Which they did, of course.

The Koussevitzky Music Shed where most of Tanglewood musical performances take place is huge, open on all sides (chilly at night, yeah) and seating thousands. It's named for Serge Koussevitzky, Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1925 to 1950. One afternoon our tour group was treated to a rare visit to Seranak, the beautiful home perched high on a nearby hill that Koussevitzky purchased in 1939 with his wife Natalie (the first of three).

We learned a lot that weekend:

...from Benjamin Levy of the BSO that double bass players have the option of using a bow under or over the instrument (he chooses one to use under). And a valuable bass is often passed from one musician to the next.

...from Cynthia Meyers, the sole piccolo player of the BSO, that what matters in the quality of the instrument is less its age than whether it was made by hand or machine (hers was hand made).

...many of the members of the Boston Pops are also members of the BSO (or the other way around), openings in those organizations come only when someone has died or retired, and once hired, a player has a one-year trial period before becoming a member for life.

...conductors suffer their own kind of tennis elbow, as Maestro Lockhart came to greet us before "Oz" with an ice pack on his neck.

...it takes a crew of 600 volunteers to keep Tanglewood running through the summer, the Boston Symphony maintains a nearly year-round schedule and, not incidentally, owns Tanglewood and Seranak.

The ghosts of Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein haunt the grounds of Tanglewood, where they were longtime participants. One might say something similar about Beethoven, two of whose works were presented on the last part of our tour on Sunday afternoon. The first was a beautiful, not-often-heard Choral Fantasy, the second his Ninth Symphony. Dr. Jeremy Yudkin, Chair of the Musicology Department at Boston University, spoke to us about the deafness that struck Beethoven years before composing his Ninth Symphony and other major works.

Utterly deaf when the Ninth was first played, Beethoven needed to be turned to face the audience to see them cheering. Hard as it may be to imagine, said Dr. Yudkin, Beethoven HEARD the music he had composed, the four indelible movements that conclude with the grand choral Ode to Joy. That melody from 200 years ago is as famous today as any pop ballad; kids learn to play it in a simple piano version.

Any doubt remaining about immortaliity?

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Stanley Ely writes about different cultural matters in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.