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Teen, former NFL player among fellows

Tanglewood program mentors musicians

Ta'u Pupu'a, 33, an NFL player turned operatic tenor is a Tanglewood Music Center fellow. Ta'u Pupu'a, 33, an NFL player turned operatic tenor is a Tanglewood Music Center fellow.
By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / July 4, 2010

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LENOX — Some 157 young dreamers will be sprinkled among the masses of blankets and folding chairs on the vast lawn outside Koussevitzky Music Shed when the Boston Symphony Orchestra begins its Tanglewood summer festival Friday night. It’s the 70th year of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s storied institute for emerging classical professionals, and as the members of this year’s class of fellows relax on the grass for the opening concert, they will have good reason to envision themselves up on the stage.

For one thing, about a third of the orchestra has roots in the TMC. What’s more, the soloists in the opening-night performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,’’ soprano Layla Claire and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, were TMC fellows.

Blythe spent the summer of 1993 at Tanglewood. Claire was sitting out on the lawn just last year.

“I’m really excited to be singing in the shed and looking out at all those people, especially the ones way out on the lawn,’’ said Claire, 28, who was a fellow in ’07 as well. “Last summer that was me, every night, sitting on the grass and watching.’’ And maybe dreaming a little? “Yes, absolutely. Every night.’’

As a center for advanced musical study under the auspices of the BSO, the TMC is highly competitive to get into (nearly 1,600 applicants).

“I remember feeling intimidated when I first arrived, working with James Levine and Phyllis Curtin and the amazing staff, and being around so many great young musicians,’’ said Claire, speaking by phone before arriving for rehearsals. “It took me a while to realize that the point of being here is not to show off what you do well. What you do well is what got you into Tanglewood. Once you’re here, it’s time to take risks and push yourself.’’

“This is a place where you blossom by taking chances,’’ said Ellen Highstein, the program’s director. “It’s not like conservatory, where it’s everybody go off to your practice room and see if you can play faster and louder than everybody else. Tanglewood is about collaboration, about working with people you never have before and never imagined you would. If you’re an orchestra player, go to a master class in voice. Just try it. Nobody is judging.’’

That mindset takes time to settle in. As the fellows arrived last weekend, they could be seen walking around the 210 acres with maps of the grounds like summertime tourists. They came to Lenox from 21 countries. Among the oldest of them is a 33-year-old tenor whose earliest mentoring on a big stage was by a maestro well known to Bostonians. It wasn’t James Levine, although the promise of spending this summer performing under the baton of the BSO music director was what enticed Ta’u Pupu’a to Tanglewood (and ultimately was a source of disappointment when Levine had to bow out because of his continuing recovery from back surgery). No, the “conductor’’ in question was New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who back in 1995 was with the Cleveland Browns and selected Pupu’a, a defensive tackle out of Weber State University, in the fifth round of the NFL draft.

Pupu’a, a native of Tonga, moved to Salt Lake City at age 10 and grew up singing in the choir of the church where his father was preacher. He long ago moved on from football to pursue his passion for opera. After moving to New York and winning several singing roles, it was an opera in which he did not perform that proved to be his big break. Three years ago he went to the Metropolitan Opera to hear Kiri Te Kanawa and stayed afterward to ask her to autograph his program. They ended up in conversation about their shared Polynesian heritage. When Pupu’a told her he was an aspiring tenor but had no formal training, Te Kanawa agreed to hear him sing and then arranged for an audition at the Juilliard School. “In life,’’ she told him, “everyone needs a push.’’

Pupu’a sang his way to a full scholarship. His talent was raw, however, and remained so even as he auditioned for the TMC more than a year later in front of Levine.

“Luckily for me,’’ said Pupu’a, “he recognized that I have a voice.’’ That voice will be on display Aug. 1, 2, and 4 when he performs Bacchus in a TMC production of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.’’

Pupu’a still brings his sports mindset to the rehearsal room.

“Preparing a role in an opera is the same thing as preparing for a game,’’ he said. “It’s not just about putting in the time. Bill Belichick used to tell us, ‘They say practice makes perfect, but that’s wrong. You can practice all day, but if you’re not doing the things you need to do to win the game, your practice isn’t good enough. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect.’ James Levine says basically the same thing. I feel lucky to have had two giants like Belichick and Levine on my side.’’

The dichotomy of building on your past while moving beyond it is also a focal point for the youngest of this season’s TMC fellows. Alexander Prior, a British conductor and composer who studies at Saint Petersburg Conservatory in Russia and has just completed an appointment as assistant to the guest conductors for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, is 17. He’s been playing piano since age 3, composing since 8, and conducting since 13. Last year he hosted a British TV series called “The World’s Greatest Musical Prodigies,’’ in which he travels the world to audition wunderkind soloists to perform a concerto he composed. But don’t ask him about that.

“Oh, you want to talk about the dreaded p-word,’’ he said. Was he tired of talking about something he’s been asked about his whole life? “No, that’s not it at all,’’ he said. “I often am asked about, oh, the music of Mahler, and I don’t tire of talking about that. But the label of ‘prodigy’ is awful. And in my case it’s inaccurate. A prodigy is a child who has learned how to play a lot of notes really, really fast. That’s not my relationship with music.’’

Prior’s relationship with music is likely what earns him the respect of orchestra players far older and more experienced when the teen stands before them, baton in hand.

“Gaining respect is an issue for about five minutes of a rehearsal,’’ he said. “After that, they know I’m serious.’’

While preparing to conduct a Mahler work, for example, he read a thick volume of the composer’s letters to his wife. “I wanted to understand his emotions,’’ said Prior, “to become a channel for his expression.’’

This summer he has much to prepare for: Today at 10 a.m. at Seiji Ozawa Hall, he will conduct an ensemble of brass and percussion fellows. Prior also will lead the TMC Orchestra in Strauss’s Suite from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’’ on July 12 and Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet’’ on July 25, both at Ozawa Hall.

What are his expectations? “I have none,’’ he said. “I am open.’’

That, as it turns out, makes Prior a model TMC fellow.

“What we hope for is that the kids are open-minded and imaginative,’’ said Highstein, who took over as director in 1997. She says that referring to the fellows, who average 25 years of age, as “kids’’ is in following “a tradition started by Lenny Bernstein.’’ He was in the first class of fellows, found a mentor in BSO conductor (and TMC founder) Serge Koussevitzky, and ended up teaching and mentoring young musicians here for the rest of his life.

“The teachers are so supportive,’’ said opening-night soprano Claire. “They want you to find your musical voice. They want to help you cultivate what is special about you.’’

And while they’re at it, perhaps prepare you for the job of your dreams. Trumpeter Thomas Siders was a fellow the last two summers, working closely with the BSO brass section, “learning how they work, their styles of playing, what they’re like as people.’’ In January the 25-year-old won the position of BSO assistant principal trumpet.

“If I hadn’t been at Tanglewood,’’ he acknowledged, “I wouldn’t have the job that I have. No way.’’

But inspiration is not a one-way street for the orchestral “farm team’’ known as the Tanglewood Music Center. The BSO derives a benefit from its summer teaching residency, one with significance well beyond job recruitment.

“One of the truly ingenious ideas of Koussevitzky’s was that he believed this partnership helped not just the young musicians but the established players in his orchestra,’’ said Highstein. “Being around all of these talented, bright, motivated students, he felt, would bring out in the orchestra members all of those things that made them want to go into music in the first place. It was a way of keeping his orchestra alive.’’

Jeff Wagenheim can be reached at wagenheim@swersey.com.

In their footsteps

Some of the most celebrated musicians of our time have passed through the Tanglewood Music Center summer program. Among them:

Claudio Abbado, 1958, conducting
John Adams, 1974, composition
Marin Alsop, 1988 and 1989, conducting
Burt Bacharach, 1946, choral
Luciano Berio, 1952, composition
Leonard Bernstein, 1940 and 1942, conducting
William Bolcom, 1966, composition
George Crumb, 1955, composition
Phyllis Curtin, 1948 and 1951, vocal
Norman Dello Joio, 1940 and 1941, composition
Charles Dutoit, 1959, conducting
Jules Eskin, 1948, instrumental
Lukas Foss, 1940 and 1942, conducting
Alberto Ginastera, 1946, conducting
Osvaldo Golijov, 1990, composition
John Harbison, 1959 and 1960, conducting; 1959, instrumental
Randall Hodgkinson, 1974, instrumental
Lorraine Hunt, 1980, instrumental
Gilbert Kalish, 1951, instrumental
Julian Kuerti, 2005, conducting
Mario Lanza, 1942, vocal
Grant Llewellyn, 1985, conducting
Jerome Lowenthal, 1955, instrumental
Lorin Maazel, 1951 and 1952, conducting
Wynton Marsalis, 1979, instrumental
Zubin Mehta, 1958, conducting
Christopher O’Riley, 1976, instrumental
Seiji Ozawa, 1960, conducting
Daniel Pinkham, 1946, conducting
Gerard Schwarz, 1965, instrumental
Tom Siders, 2009, instrumental
Fenwick Smith, 1972, instrumental
Michael Tilson Thomas, 1968 and 1969, conducting
Dawn Upshaw, 1983, vocal
Christoph Von Dohnanyi, 1952, conducting
James Yannatos, 1955, conducting

SOURCE: BSO