There are two main venues at Tanglewood: the Koussevitsky Music Shed, named for the orchestra’s legendary music director, is the main stage, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra gives its concerts. The Shed, as it’s fondly known, is the iconic Tanglewood performance space, essentially a bandshell with a high roof extending over the audience. Beyond the roof’s edge sprawls a massive lawn whereon more listeners can picnic during the performance, for a nominal fee. Beach umbrellas, not opera glasses, are the concert accessory of choice here.

Recitals and chamber concerts take place at Ozawa Hall, just over the hill. It, too, bears the name of a giant of the BSO’s podium: Seiji Ozawa, whose twenty-nine years at the helm outstripped even Dr. Koussevitsky’s twenty-five. Unlike the Shed, this is a real enclosed concert hall, though when the weather permits, the rear wall slides open like a garage door, to accommodate lawn chairs and picnic baskets outside. Open exterior staircases and promenades keep patrons in contact with the outdoors, while the interior is all warm oranges. A latticework motif can be seen in just about every aspect of the decoration, from the backs of chairs to the railings to the windows on the top level and the shutters at the rear of the stage. The acoustics are just about ideal, lively and focused, without too much reverb. On a cool summer evening when the back is open and the Berkshire air breezes in, Ozawa is one of the most sublime places anywhere to take in a concert. It’s like a Wigmore in the wild.

The interior of Ozawa Hall. Photo by Hilary Scott.

The Emerson String Quartet’s Wednesday concert at Ozawa wasn’t really a concert as much as a one-act theatrical presentation with a heavy musical component. The quartet teamed up with writer and director James Glossman to produce a ninety-minute biographical vignette of sorts, centered around Dmitri Shostakovich’s apparently unrealized goal to write an opera based on Anton Chekhov’s short story The Black Monk, featuring the entirety of the composer’s Fourteenth String Quartet—and an excerpt or two from the Eighth—spread throughout the performance as incidental music.

Emerson, of course, played the quartet brilliantly—they were stylish and perceptive in their reading. They found the element so crucial to Shostakovich’s ethos, the deceptive nonchalance that can turn in an instant to vicious gnashing of teeth; a folk dance suddenly becomes a savage brawl, clawing for survival.

But though the music is almost constantly present, it’s rarely the focus. Only twice do we really hear long stretches of the quartet uninterrupted—at the beginning and end of the piece, bookending the narrative. In the absence of an actual opera based on The Black Monk, Glossman’s play shows Shostakovich struggling to write the piece, and uses the quartet to furnish the score.

Shostakovich and the Black Monk has its hits and misses—the attempt to construct a narrative frame out of Shostakovich’s biography is feeble, even if useful. After a performance of the quartet’s first movement, the actors enter, frantically chanting “Muddle, not music!,” the damning verdict—Stalin’s own, as many believe—that appeared in Pravda the day after the Central Committee bosses attended a performance of Shostakovich’s hit opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Perhaps the creators were making a clever gesture towards Soviet agitprop, but there was something a little too “Living Newspaper” about the effect for me, trying to instruct the audience how to relate to the protagonist before we’ve even met him.

The play-within-the-play ends up being the most effective part of the piece, as an endearingly nebbishy Shostakovich (David Strathairn) guides us through the story of a young poet-philosopher who is consumed by his regard for his own genius, yet ultimately driven to madness and ruin when he achieves only mediocrity. Stalin is a domineering presence throughout the show, and Jay O. Sanders plays the role masterfully, hiding an untraceable hint of malice under an ostentatiously jovial demeanor. Tormenting Shostakovich before his sudden death in 1953, he returns to haunt the composer from the next world, insisting on playing a part in The Black Monk.

That one point is difficult to grapple with. Shostakovich, attacked time and again by the Party’s cultural arbiters—and whose friends and colleagues were harassed, imprisoned, or assassinated—continued to compose honest, expressive music. Dissident works like the First Violin Concerto were hidden away in a drawer until they could safely be shared with the public, and even his more “dutiful” works like the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies bear veiled currents of sardonicism or even anguish. The notion that the artist who strove to create truthful work in the face of oppression might, having outlived Stalin by more than two decades, be haunted by the tyrant’s memory until his dying day seems a little . . . defeatist.

But Glossman’s drama manages to grasp the essential spirit of Shostakovich—all the cruelties of the Politburo could not dull his wit, nor silence the playful laughter in his music. The idiosyncratic mix of grief, humor, rage, sarcasm, earnestness, and even national pride that we hear in his music is here faithfully translated into another medium, connecting the beloved work of the artist to the remarkable story of his life.

Members of the Emerson String Quartet perform the “Trout” Quintet with Thomas Adès and Edwin Barker. Photo by Hilary Scott.

This summer, Tanglewood is presenting a series called “Schubert’s Summer Journey,” six concerts in Ozawa curated by Manny Ax. The title, of course, is a nod to Winterreise, “Winter Journey,” the latter of Schubert’s two great song cycles. The Schubert selections on Thursday’s program, the second of six, could hardly have been further from that masterpiece of gloom and despair.

The concert opened with five lieder, performed by the impressive young baritone Andrè Schuen. His is not the most robust or colorful instrument in the world, but it is athletic, and nimble—he can turn a gorgeous phrase at the top of his range without any fear of strain. He showed excellent diction and energetic delivery in his selections, and found some enthralling lyricism in “Der Wanderer an den Mond.”

Thomas Adès, meanwhile proved to be a wizard of the keyboard. He’s best known as a composer and conducts frequently (I’ve found him lacking in that department, though many feel otherwise). As a lieder accompanist he’s simply brilliant: Schubert’s songs raise the piano part onto a higher plane, putting as much imaginative force into the accompaniment as into the vocal line. Adès seems to feel the poetry in his fingers. Whether in halting chords or rolling waves, he played with astonishing sensitivity—silently mouthing the text all the while.

Emerson returned for this program, rounding out the first half with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Shroud, which they premiered in 2016. This is a five-movement string quartet, though the balance of the piece makes the bookends stick out prominently. The inner movements (two Intermezzos and a March) feel a little slight, for all their energy and humor. The first movement, Threnody, opens with a motif presented in hair-raising unison from all four instruments—all in the same octave, even—before the subject is tossed about, layered on top of itself. The progression feels mechanical at times, though Turnage does find some interesting moments in the music’s wanderings.

The final movement, Lament, could stand on its own. It feels like a lamentation in the Virgilian tradition—no quiet grief, but harsh keening, tearing of hair, beating of breast, screaming. In the stabbing, dissonant torment of the music there is a powerful mixture of rage and sadness, deeply felt and deafeningly expressed.

So much of the core of Schubert’s catalogue comes from his later years, when sickness had begun to weigh on him—Die Schöne Müllerin, the “Rosamunde” and “Death and the Maiden” Quartets, and, indeed, Winterreise are all suffused with a profound, soul-trying, painfully beautiful despair. Even in blissful works like the C-Major String Quintet, whatever happiness we hear seems filtered through a nostalgic haze of tears.

Step back into the composer’s early days and you find a different artist. The “Trout” Quintet, which he wrote at the obnoxiously precocious age of twenty-two, is impossibly sunny—in the bright thrumming of the ensemble we hear youthful aspiration, vitality, the hopeful yearning of the Romantic soul.

Three of the Emerson players, along with Adès and the bassist Edwin Barker, gave the piece a formidable reading. Philip Setzer, who took the violin part, poured honey into his sound; Paul Watkins brought tender sighs to the cello’s starring variation in the fourth movement. Adès again was outstanding, highlighting the little oddities in the music—a hung dissonance, a phrase that drives to a strange rhythmic conclusion—that make us remember this quintet was once a fresh, inventive new composition, and not the centuries-old chestnut it is today.

Rain had threatened earlier in the day, but the back of the hall, happily, was open for Thursday’s concert. From the front of the first balcony you could just make out the flickering lanterns of distant Schubert devotees out on the hill.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.