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At Tanglewood this year, it's choral works and opera

Tanglewood must be one of the most beautiful areas of any music festival accessible to major cities. The summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra never ceases to cast its special rural spell -- whether it's the splendors of the large umbrella-ish trees or the vista from the main lawn down to the lake at the bottom of the Stockbridge Bowl, or the fascinating ritual of birds feeding their young in the uper reaches of the Music Shed.

And, of course, there is the music. The programs this season include music from Bach to Peter Maxwell Davies -- whose Second Symphony was commissioned by the Boston Symphony for its 100th anniversary celebration.Recent changes in the programming have led to the deletion of the Beethoven weekend -- an almost-tradition that quite consistently drew the largest crowds of the season. Now the "draw" items are big choral/operatic affairs, such as the Verdi Requiem this past weekend and the scenes from Massorgsky's "Boris Godunov" in the Rimsky-Korsakov version, boasting Nikolai Ghiaurov in the title role.

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What of music at Tanglewood these days? The Boston Symphony remains a marvelous instrument, through naturally a different one in this out-of-doors context. Edges were a bit rougher this weekend, and a certain vacation inattentiveness was to be encountered now and then.

The big event, of course, was the performance of the Requiem. It drew 10,890 people -- a respectable but hardly enormous crowd when one considers that Eugene Ormandy attracted over 17,000 one night several seasons back. Seiji Ozawa, who will be on hand for six of the eight orchestral weekends, presided. The vocal quartet was, on paper, the best-matched group in many a season of Verdi Requiems: Mirella Freni, soprano; Shirley Verrett, mezzo soprano; Ermanno Mauro, tenor; and Mr. Ghiaurov, bass. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under John Oliver, is one of the country's great ensembles.

Ozawa is at home in big, complicated works. The gears mesh smoothly, the big moments are bracing, often thrilling, and nothing falls apart . . . well, almost nothing. Here, the "Luxe Aeterna" did just that. Singers, orchestra, and conductor found their own strata of rhythm and plunged ahead in splendid isolation, and the maestro decided that the huge "dies irae" was really a series of set pieces for each singer or group of singers. So we heard showcase after showcase separated by big pauses of silence: all that was lacking was applause between numbers.

But the first 20 or so minutes was electrifyingly, and at its best -- which was much of the time -- Ozawa did Verdi no disservice. Considering that of late such acclaimed Verdiens as Riccardo Muti and Sir Georg Solit have reaped utter chaos on Verdi's vision, one can only be grateful that Ozawa had so few "insights" to share. Miss Freni's voice is showing the signs of wear and tear that such heavy roles as Aida, Elisabetta in "Don Carlos," and even the Requiem have caused. Her essential acidity and emotional reserve remain intact, however , so even at its loveliest, this lyric account of a dramatic soprano part rarely touched the passions of a soul in search of peace and deliverance. Miss Verrett had one of her better evenings of recent (and not so recent) memory. Her mezzo singing has more problems than it used to, but her work was distinguished by its impact and fervor.

Mr. Mauro has the dramatic nettle needed for this work. He can be quite musical, he respects Verdi, and he is the closest thing to the genuine Verdi voice we have among tenors today -- including Veriano Luchetti, who seems to have a stranglehold on this part around the world. Mr. Ghiaurov's voice is not the imposing instrument it once was, and what is left, while often thrilling, proved rarely moving Saturday night. The chorus did not disappoint.

But Christop Eschenbach did. The German pianist is one of those virtuosos who feel compelled to become a conductor, too. Usually the motive is attributable to boredom with the piano literature. But in Eschenbach's case his account of the Sunday afternoon concert was a little boring. The Symphony brought him back this year for two concerts, and its must be said that the last time around he evinced a certain slickness in his conducting that was rarely in view Sunday afternoon.

Stravinsky's "Pulcinella Suite" was disastrous. Mozart's 27th Piano Concerto K. 595, with Eschenbach conducting from the keyboard, was mannered, chilly, and humorless. His account of the Verdi string quartet in E minor (transcribed for orchestra) was solid, nothing more.

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There are plenty of talented conductors looking for podiums. Perhaps it is time some major orchestras of the world stopped relying on managements and celebrity names and started hiring appropriate talent. And more to the point -- since Eshcenbach drew a mere 6,573 Friday night and a startingly low 7,999 Sunday afternoon -- perhaps the BSO should look to better, more popular programming for Sundays and more coherent musical programming throughout the festival. A few good and grandiose events do not a realm festival make. If a musical crowd is to be attracted and maintained as a core of loyal concertgoers, some continuity will have to be restored.

People will come to hear Leonard Bernstein, Ozawa, Ormandy, and even Andre Previn. It is right that this great orchestra should be offering lesser-known artists and works, even if they do not draw a maximum crowds. But grass, stars, breezes, and balms are not always enough to keep people coming back. A festival feeling generates constant excitement so that a requiem is followed by something equally special, not dull and indifferent.

Still, there are choice things to anticipate this summer. Miss Freni's recital is tonight, and it was sumptuous when heard in New york. Ormandy offers all Rachmaninoff July 25 at 8:30. Ozawa is joined by Jessye Norman and Jon Vickers Aug. 1 at 8:30 for Act II of "Tristan und Isolde." And the season closes Aug. 23 at 2:30 with Ozawa's rousing account of Mahler's symphony of 1000, No. 8 .

There is a strong list of chamber music to be heard, both Thursday evenings and as a Friday prelude (at 7 p.m.) to the weekend's orchestral doings.

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