13 classical music festivals to attend this summer

Persons Auditorium at Malboro Music. (Courtesy Pete Checchia/Marlboro Music)
Persons Auditorium at Malboro Music. (Courtesy Pete Checchia/Marlboro Music)

Sum-sum-summertime is upon us, and for music lovers, that might include an escape from crowded and noisy urban life to pastoral Tanglewood for outdoor events or picturesque Rockport for indoor events with a gorgeous harbor view. You can go to the Hatch Shell on the bank of the Charles River, across state lines to fabulous Newport, Rhode Island, or even historic Saratoga Springs, New York. The variety of musical offerings this season couldn’t be more alluring.


Lenox | June 22-Aug. 27

America’s leading summer classical music festival has an impressive variety of programs, from intimate chamber recitals, discussions and workshops with celebrated visiting musicians and popular favorites like James Taylor (July 3-4) and Kelli O’Hara (Aug. 22) to the major weekend programs with the magnificent Boston Symphony Orchestra. The official Opening Night at Tanglewood features the extraordinary Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov in the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, along with a recent piece by Winton Marsalis alliteratively titled “Herald, Holler, and Hallelujah” and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, all under the baton of BSO music director Andris Nelsons (July 7).

The BSO closes its part of the Tanglewood season, as usual, with the Beethoven Ninth — not under Nelsons, but with the outstanding Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki (Aug. 20). Earlier in the summer, you can hear Mälkki in conversation (Aug. 10) and conducting a program of early Mozart (the Piano Concerto No. 9, with Seong-Jin Cho) and late Bartok (the Concerto for Orchestra, whose world premiere was given by the BSO in 1944) (Aug. 12).

Another Tanglewood highlight is the Festival of Contemporary Music, which this year will include a conversation between composer Michael Gandolfi, the head of the summer’s composition program, and the festival’s curators, plus two intriguing concerts (July 27-28). Just before the Festival, a BSO Chamber Players concert will showcase three of our most important living composers with works by Yehudi Wyner, Shulamit Ran, Sofia Gubaidulina and the Schumann Piano Quintet (July 26).

In one Tanglewood special event, Nelsons will conduct "Così fan tutte," the third (and perhaps most sublime) of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces with a devastatingly brilliant libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (a scandalous Jewish Italian Catholic priest whose career included becoming the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University). Soprano Nicole Cabell returns as the strong-minded Fiordiligi after singing Donna Anna in last summer’s “Don Giovanni,” with the wonderful Kate Lindsey as her more easily-seducible sister, Dorabella (July 15).

Rockport Chamber Music Festival
Rockport | June 9-Aug. 12

Now in its 42nd year, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, under the current direction of violist Barry Shiffman, is not only one of our most serious festivals, it’s also, at Rockport’s waterfront Shalin Liu Performance Center, one of the most picturesque. There isn’t a concert I wouldn’t recommend, but two really stand out for me. There’s the breathtaking piano virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin with the prize-winning Balourdet String Quartet, currently in residence at the New England Conservatory, performing string quartets by Karim Al-Zand and Felix Mendelssohn and César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor (June 25). And there’s a sumptuous Brahms/Schumann (both Robert and Clara) program with the most eloquent and searching of our younger-generation violinists, Stefan Jackiw; the profound pianist Max Levinson; and clarinetist Yoonah Kim (June 30).

Aston Magna
Waltham & Great Barrington (also Hudson, New York) | June 22-July 22

The Aston Magna Music Festival, now turning 50, is America’s oldest annual summer festival devoted to music on period instruments. For 30 of those years, it’s been under the invaluable direction of violinist Daniel Stepner. This summer’s programs include a concert devoted to Mozart’s solo and duo sonatas and fantasies played by Stepner with Robert Levin, one of the world’s great keyboard artists and improvisers, on the fortepiano. Levin is one of the few living pianists permitted to perform on Mozart’s own fortepiano. His complete Mozart sonata album, performed on Mozart’s own instrument, also includes Levin’s completions of unfinished pieces and has recently been released on ECM. At this concert, Levin won’t be playing Mozart’s fortepiano (it doesn’t travel), but the artistry will remain the same (June 29 and July 1). This will be followed by a concert with another invaluable artist, French-Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle, singing the music of Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi and Handel (July 6 and 8).

There will also be a reprise of last year’s extraordinary production of Stravinsky’s “L’histoire du soldat” (A Soldier’s Tale), directed by and starring tenor Frank Kelley — one of those rare productions in which the staging is as inspired as the music. It’s on a double bill with Alessandro Scarlatti’s devilish oratorio, “Humanitá e Lucifero” (June 22 and 24).

Boston Landmarks Orchestra
In and around Boston | June 17-Aug. 23

The Landmarks Orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Wilkins since 2011, is literally a gift to the neighborhoods of Boston, offering a summer of free concerts mainly at the Hatch Shell and the Dorchester/Roxbury Kroc Center. These concerts are designed to attract audiences largely unfamiliar with “classical” music, but the performances are on a high level, with programs even jaded listeners will find appealing.

Boston Guitar Fest
East Cambridge | June 27-July 2

Some stellar guitarists, including the legendary Eliot Fisk co-director of the festival along with Zaira Meneses, and British lutenist Nigel North will be playing a variety of string classics from Scarlatti, da Milano, and Dowland to Liszt, Albeniz, and Turina. This is the crème-de-la-crème of guitar festivals.

Berkshire Opera Festival
Great Barrington & Pittsfield | July 22-Sept. 1

This popular company has two offerings this summer: “Breaking the Mold—Baroque, Bel Canto, and Beyond,” an afternoon of operatic excerpts “sung by strong characters who each ‘broke the mold’ in their own way” (July 22), and a production of what is probably the most beloved opera in the repertoire, “La Bohème.” I’m not familiar with the singers, but Puccini’s masterpiece is really hard to ruin, though I’ve seen some companies try (Aug. 26 and 29, Sept. 1).

Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival
Cotuit, Chatham, Wellfleet, Eastham, Falmouth & Dennis | July 25-Aug. 18

Jon Menasse (clarinet) and Jon Nakamatsu (piano) curate and perform in a series of concerts in churches and other venues around the Cape. Among the numerous delights are the magnificent Borromeo Quartet in an evening of Bartok and late Beethoven masterworks (Chatham First Congregational Church, Aug. 2), the Danish String Quartet in an evening of Haydn, Shostakovich, and their own arrangements of Danish folk songs (Wellfleet First Congregational Church, Aug. 3), the sensational Imani Winds in a selection of 20th and 21st-century works (Dennis Union Church, Aug. 16) and the esteemed Emerson String Quartet in its Cape farewell appearance (Wellfleet First Congregational Church, Aug. 18).


Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs | July 12-Aug. 19

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) is the summer home f the New York City Ballet, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The covered main stage area seats some 5000 people, and the lawn can accommodate some 20,000 more. Yannik Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s beloved music director (he’s also music director of the Metropolitan Opera), will be leading only two of the orchestra’s 12 programs. “Rachmaninoff at 150” celebrates the composer’s birthday with the luscious Piano Concerto No. 2 — marking the SPAC debut of pianist Bruce Liu, winner of the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition — and the gorgeous but interminable Third Symphony. An evening devoted to the spiritual awakening of the Earth includes Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and John Luther Adams’s “Vespers of the Blessed Earth” (Aug. 11-12). Guest stars will include Audra MacDonald (Aug. 10), violinist Gil Shaham (Aug. 16) and super-cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Aug. 17).

Glimmerglass Opera
Cooperstown | July 7-Aug. 20

Cooperstown is a bit of a schlep from Boston, but many Bostonians craving full-scale opera productions are willing to make the trip. This year’s offerings range from work as familiar as Puccini’s “La Bohème” (July 7-Aug. 19) to Gounod’s tuneful and once popular but now seldom performed “Romeo and Juliet” (July 15-Aug. 19). (I was surprised to see the phrase “contains spoilers” before each of the Glimmerglass plot summaries — I suppose there must be someone who doesn’t want to know how “Romeo and Juliet” ends.) Also on the menu are Francesca Zambello’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s glittering and gay “Candide” (July 8-Aug. 20) and Handel’s brilliant “Rinaldo” starring the great countertenor and Glimmerglass artist-in-residence Anthony Roth Costanzo (July 28-Aug. 17). A new young person’s opera, “The Rip Van Winkles” (Aug. 7-18); a program of Monteverdi madrigals, "Love & War" (Aug. 3-17); and two “Evenings” (actually afternoons) with Anthony Roth Costanzo and members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program flesh out the calendar (Aug. 11 and 14).

Bard SummerScape 2023
Annandale-on-Hudson | June 22-Aug. 13

Bard College has one of the most ambitious summer musical seasons. “SummerScape” opens with “Illinois,” described on Bard’s website as “an ecstatic pageant of storytelling, theater, dance, and live music,” based on Sufjan Stevens cult album, choreographed by New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer Justin Peck (who also re-choreographed “West Side Story” for the recent Spielberg movie version), with a “narrative” by Peck and Pulitzer Prize playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (June 23-July 2). In 2019, before the pandemic, Boston’s Odyssey Opera presented a long and strong concert version of Saint-Saëns’s neglected opera “Henri VIII.” This summer, you can see a full production of it at Bard, directed by rising-star stage director Jean-Romain Vesperini, with stellar bass-baritone Alfred Walker in the title role. Spoiler alert: it’s about a much-married English king, and it doesn’t end well for some of his wives (July 21-30).

Part of SummerScape is the Bard Music Festival, an in-depth study of a single musical figure through a series of lectures and concerts. This summer, the subject is British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, with 10 events celebrating his music and the music of other British and European composers who influenced him or were influenced by him (Aug. 4-13). One evening of light music from Gilbert & Sullivan through the Beatles sounds particularly delightful (Aug. 6).


Newport Classical Music Festival
Newport | July 4-23

Variety is the keyword for Rhode Island’s preeminent summer classical music festival, with popular performers from Kelli O’Hara entertaining at the Breakers, Newport’s preeminent mansion (July 19-20), to more controversial celebrities like pianists Simone Dinnerstein (July 6) and Hélène Grimaux (July 13); from an evening of flute music (July 12) to a concert version of Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte” (July 9), with very few concerts in the same genre.


Yellow Barn
Putney | July 7-Aug. 5

Every summer, student and young professional musicians gather at the Yellow Barn in Putney, Vermont for a month of studies, masterclasses and concerts. The weekly morning masterclasses are open to the public, and this year’s distinguished faculty includes pianist Gilbert Kalish (July 8), violinist Donald Weilerstein (July 15), cellist Laurence Lesser (July 22) and violist Kim Kashkashian (July 29). One highlight will be a special recital by baritone William Sharp with pianist Seth Knopp, both genuine artists (July 27).

Marlboro Music
Marlboro | July 15-Aug. 13

Founded in 1951, Marlboro Music is one of this country’s most beloved summer festivals. The five-weekend programs and their performers are selected no more than a week in advance from the numerous artists — from 60 to 80 instrumentalists and singers — who rehearse there daily. And yet, there is such a loyal following that even without knowing who will be playing or what will be played, the concerts are mostly sold out. Some of the better-known participants this year are Marlboro’s co-directors, pianists Jonathan Biss and Mitsuko Uchida, violinist Arnold Steinhardt and clarinetist Anthony McGill.


Lloyd Schwartz Arts Critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Somerville's Poet Laureate.



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