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Christoph von Dohnanyi leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Friday at Tanglewood.
Monday July 9, 2012

LENOX -- There's no way of knowing what Tanglewood's inaugural concert 75 years ago sounded like, but it's a pretty safe bet that it sounded little like the re-creation of that program Friday night. And not just because the inaugural took place in a tent.

Serge Koussevitzky, the founder, was on the podium on the night of Aug. 5, 1937. Musically, Koussevitzky could swerve and change lanes as freely as any driver on the Mass Pike. In the absence of a music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the opening-night reprise. A steady hand was at the wheel.

If you wanted fireworks on the warm evening, you had to stay for the post-concert show, as many in the large audience did. Instead, Dohnanyi provided the rewards of solid musicianship, to which the BSO responded with a will.

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The all-Beethoven program in the Shed was a repeat down the line: the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 followed by Sixth ("Pastorale") and Fifth symphonies. Curiously, the program also replicated, in part, the marathon 1808 concert at which Beethoven, as conductor, premiered the Sixth and Fifth symphonies along with a potpourri of his other works.

There was another parallel. Dohnanyi drew such tightly controlled and focused playing from the home team that the sounds could have come from a chamber-sized orchestra such as Beethoven would have employed.

On the other hand, the BSO undoubtedly played better than Beethoven's hirelings did.

The 82-year-old Dohnanyi, an heir of the German tradition, sounded more rigid than he had in his many other appearances. For this ceremonious occasion, he aided his cause by seating the orchestra in the classical style, with the violin sections divided to his left and right.

Many often-buried details emerged: the murmur of brook in the lower strings during the "Pastorale," for example, and the rumble of the basses during the "Pastorale's" storm and the Fifth's tensions. The "Leonore" didn't come together as comfortably as the symphonies did, but throughout the evening the little things added up to big things.

In a different time, presiding over a non-union orchestra in a reign of terror, Koussevitzky set his own tempos and sought a beautiful carpet of sound. Times change but the tradition lives on.

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Saturday's program contained another nod to 1937, a repeat of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. It also nodded subtly to Koussevitzky, a renowned double bassist, with the world premiere of the Double Concerto for violin and double bass by the prolific Edgar Meyer.

Michael Stern, the son of violinist Isaac Stern, a former assistant to Dohnanyi and now the director of the Kansas City Symphony, was on the podium in his BSO debut. On Tangle wood's tight rehearsal schedule, he was up against it. He had to prepare an overstuffed program including a brand new 27-minute work and the large-scale Tchaikovsky symphony.

It's no wonder the Fourth delivered plenty of bark but not much bite.

Except in the scherzo, the playing sounded rough and generic, warmed over from previous performances.

Joshua Bell and Meyer himself were the soloists in Meyer's concerto, one in a series he has composed for and performed with such other luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Hilary Hahn. The new piece was written for Bell and comes across as a showcase for him.

The three-movement work virtually dares you not to like it. It is in a lyrical, basically tonal style that seems a throwback to the neo-romanticism of a fellow American like Samuel Barber, whose "School for Scandal" Overture opened the program.

The dialogs between violin and double bass can seem like conversations -- friendly or otherwise -- between a lively teenager and her sometimes gruff grandfather. The soloists owned the piece, and the BSO lent support. To the delight of the crowd, Bell warmed up for the concerto by whirling through the Gypsy acrobatics of Ravel's "Tzigane" with the orchestra.

Tough night. Everybody tried awfully hard, and Stern appeared to know his business. He needs to be heard under less pressured circumstances.