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Thursday, July 20, 2017

For this Concert Goer, 7 a.m. Tanglewood Concerts Are for the Birds

On July 27-30, Tanglewood Takes Flight, the music festival’s first-ever collaboration with Massachusetts Audubon, may attract birders who fancy classical music more than the other way around. Three of the collaboration’s five concerts, after all, take flight at 7 a.m.; a fourth is on Sunday morning at 8.  No big deal for a bona fide birder, but more than a stretch for this classical music consumer and, I’d wager, other like-minded children of the night.

The impetus behind the early-morning convocation, in fact, was to sandwich recitals between high-yield bird walks, directed and curated by Audubon. For the 7 a.m. recitals, that means hitting the trails at 5:30 a.m.—an avian-animated hour that no doubt would have appealed to the great composer-ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen’s musical tributes to birds, in fact, will take center stage throughout the three-day fest. Much of the aerodynamic lift will come on Thursday* from the pianistic wizardry of Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Arguably today’s foremost piano exponent of French impressionism and neoimpressionism, Aimard will traverse much of Messiaen’s monumental Catalogue of the Birds. That means getting musically up-close-and-personal with the likes of the woodlark, the tawny owl, and eleven other avian friends. 

No Apologies for the Starling

That won’t include the much-loathed (by songbird fanciers) starling. Little  wonder. With mercurial aplomb, they drive songbirds out of earshot, out of sight. But hear this witness for the bird’s defense.   Mozart’s Starling, a 2016 book by naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt, recounted the composer’s deeply appreciative, three-year bonding with his starling, purchased in a Viennese pet shop. With minor alterations, the bird, reveals Haupt, faithfully reproduced the first movement’s theme in Mozart’s G major Piano Concerto, No. 17. Common European starlings share accomplished mimicry honors with nightingales, which can imitate some sixty different songs after hearing each only a few times, notes Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds (2016).

And Mozart, whose own personal soundscape surely transcended the tidy
domain of consonance, valued his companion for similar eclectic tastes. Starlings, notes Haupt, are kin to mynahs, both which exhibit a dazzling repertoire of vocalizations. My own year of close contact with a friend’s mynah, in fact, revealed a rich sonic bouillabaisse.  Hellos, goodbyes, one liners (sacred and profane), and simulations of squealing car brakes, a toilet flushing, and the next-door neighbor’s asthmatic cough—their edginess and unpredictability captivated Sinbad’s many admirers.   

Saved by Dusk

And so, I plan to forgo the 7 a.m. hoe downs in favor of Aimard’s 8 p.m. recital on Thursday evening at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Tanglewood publicists describe it as “a fascinating centuries-spanning program that will explore the many recreations of birdsong in music by composers from the Baroque to the present day.” They will include Daquin, Schumann, Ravel, Bartók, and Julian Anderson. “The centerpiece of the concert,” the schedule notes continue, “will be a selection of movements from Messiaen's Catalogue of the Birds, to be interspersed with electronic works by French composer Bernard Fort, incorporating the same bird calls. The program will be preceded by a "Birds at Dusk" session on the Tanglewood Grounds with Mass Audubon ornithologist Wayne Petersen.” Just as birds frolic at dawn and dusk, I’m thrilled that Tanglewood gives a morsel of crepuscular cred to challenged listeners like me.

*It’s uncertain from Tanglewood’s schedule notes whether he will also play in scheduled Catalogue recitals on Friday and Saturday morning. On Sunday morning a “Tanglewood Music Center Chamber Music Concert will include Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. Here is the full Tanglewood Takes Flight schedule.