Last summer, Tanglewood opened its gates to the public just three days a week, with the scene behind its tall walls remaining eerie and silent. No strains of melodies floated across the grassy lawns by day. The Koussevitzky Music Shed sat empty and dark by night, panels displaying names from the region’s high school class of 2020 who never got to toss their caps into the air. Even now, it feels almost dangerous to hope for anything more.
But the Boston Symphony Orchestra isn’t just telling us to hope. It’s telling us to book B&Bs or Airbnbs and dig out those lawn chairs and cans of bug spray from the closet. Because music is on the menu once more.
The 2021 Tanglewood season is shortened to six weeks, running from July 9 to Aug. 16, but the lineup announced Thursday doesn’t look or sound so different from summers pre-pandemic. All the usual suspects will gather at the BSO’s warm-weather home: Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, in multiple concerts with and without the orchestra. John Williams, conducting at his namesake Film Night (Aug. 13). BSO music director Andris Nelsons, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, and a respectable array of guest performers and conductors.
Listeners can take in a full weekend of three concerts, with a show by the Pops or a guest ensemble on Friday night, the BSO on Saturday evening, and chamber music by the Tanglewood Music Center fellows and yet another BSO concert during the day on Sunday. Tickets go on sale May 17. Programming for Tanglewood’s Popular Artist Concert Series will be announced at a later date, though the orchestra confirmed that the July 4 James Taylor concert has been rebooked for Aug. 31.
The lineup of guests to take the stage with the BSO consists mostly of familiar faces from Tanglewood and Symphony Hall, and it doesn’t feel at all like a COVID-era stopgap. In addition to Nelsons, who will conduct eight concerts with the BSO and the TMC orchestra during July, scheduled visitors to the Shed podium include Alan Gilbert (Aug. 1-2), Herbert Blomstedt (Aug. 7, 9, and 15), and Karina Canellakis (Aug. 8) — all former TMC fellows. BSO assistant conductor Anna Rakitina will at last make her live debut with the orchestra (Aug. 14). Soloists are mostly BSO favorites: pianists Daniil Trifonov (July 17), Kirill Gerstein (July 31), Yefim Bronfman (July 25), and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Aug. 14); and violinists Joshua Bell (Aug. 7), Baiba Skride (July 11), and Lisa Batiashvili (Aug. 1), the latter two frequent guests in recent years.
The programs are not at all out of the ordinary for Tanglewood. Exceptions include newer pieces introduced by Nelsons during this year’s “BSO Now” digital programs, reprised here for the live audience, including works by Carlos Simon (July 11), Hannah Kendall (July 12), Jessie Montgomery (July 24), and Iman Habibi (July 25). There’s also the always-adventurous TMC Festival of Contemporary Music (July 25-26), Rakitina conducting Elena Langer’s “Figaro Gets a Divorce” (Aug. 14, something I want to hear just for the title) and the world premiere of John Williams’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter on a BSO program where Nelsons and Williams share the podium (July 24).
Aside from these offerings, the year’s BSO fare is familiar and hearty. Nothing flies in from too far out of left field. Practically speaking, that may keep rehearsals as smooth as possible for personnel. On a more meta level, the programming seems to make its statement by stating nothing at all, save for its commitment to approximating normality.
There will be plenty of Beethoven, starting with the season-opening all-Beethoven concert led by Nelsons (July 10). The schedule features overtures, concertos, and symphonies, including a piano trio arrangement of Symphony No. 2 performed by Ma, Ax, and Leonidas Kavakos (July 30). Brahms also is represented across multiple concerts, including the season-closing all-Brahms program with Blomstedt and Kavakos (Aug. 15). For the rest, name a composer who didn’t write for colossal orchestras (since the Shed stage is limited at 65 to 75 personnel for now) and there’s a fighting chance his (yes, his) piece will be played. The repertoire won’t be the most memorable thing about this summer. After a silent year, the fact that the BSO is performing and booking contracts is enough.
Photos from this summer at Tanglewood will show everything is not as it was, or hopefully will be next summer. Masks are mandatory for all except when eating, drinking, or playing a wind or brass instrument. All concerts are in the Shed or on the lawn, with ticketholders physically distanced. Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center for Music and Learning will be closed to the public. Programs are limited to 80 minutes with no intermission. Vocal and choral music will not be performed due to the higher risk of aerosol transmission, meaning opera is off the table. The traditional Tanglewood closer, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, is also taking the year off.
More than anything, Tanglewood is special for the opportunity it offers to gather with friends old and new, to hear music in a space that’s more inclusive and open than the gilded sonic temple that is Symphony Hall. And after the loneliness of the past year, that seems like just what the doctor ordered. Unless something goes horribly awry, Sunday afternoons at Tanglewood will once again see the lawn spread out with picnic blankets, midday nappers, and music lovers ages 0 to 99. So pack a basket, bring an umbrella, and dare to hope. (And, y’know, get vaccinated.)
TANGLEWOOD 2021 SEASON
Tickets on sale 10 a.m. May 17. 888-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.