LENOX — Like a boy who on a dare swallows a hot dog whole, the Boston Symphony Orchestra took a deep breath and gulped down John Adams' 40-minutde "Harmonielehre."
The 1985 post-minimalist work, which dominated Saturday night's Tanglewood program, is a modern classic — a monument to splashy orchestral colors and the outer limits of repetition. Yet the BSO had never before played it in its entirety, and the only previous Tanglewood performance was in 1985 by the Music Center Orchestra.
If you didn't leave this orchestral riot feeling a little woozy, you probably missed something. "Harmonielehre" — the title is taken from Schoenberg's treatise on harmony — swoops down on you like an oncoming train, sounds like a clock factory gone mad, swoons in Mahler-like melody, wallows in Wagnerian blood and ends up amid kid's stuff.
Whether the BSO chose Giancarlo Guerrero to conduct the piece or he chose it to conduct, the match seemed like an ideal fit. His all-over-the-podium energy communicated itself to the oversized orchestra, which coped heroically with minimalism's piled-up rhythms and repetitions. (But pity players hung up endlessly on a single pitch or rhythm.)
"Harmonielehre" is at once subtle in design and unsubtle in its claim on the ears. It is a symphony in three movements, the last two of which are titled "The Anfortas Wound" (see Wagner's "Parsifal") and "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie" (that would be a medieval mystic and Adams' infant daughter).
Adams went on to more substantial works, such as the operas, but "Harmonielehre," in its sheer madness, is irresistible. For one night, it seemed, the BSO couldn't resist.
The night had another ear-opener: the BSO debut if Ingrid Fliter. Winner of the 2006 Gilmore Award, and known for her Chopin, the Argentinian pianist replaced Daniil Trifonov in Chopin's second concerto. She quickly made it her own.
From the opening flight of melody, Fliter took you to places you never expected to go in this well-worn work, and made you glad you went. Her way with melody was glistening; her freedom with phrase and rhythm was luxurious. She infected Guerrero and the BSO with her imagination and excitement, and they went on to conclude the evening with a giddy romp through Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel."
Guerrero, who directs the Nashville Symphony, also presided over Friday night's program. It must have seemed like a good idea: outdoorsy music performed in the outdoorsy ambiance of the Tanglewood Shed.
Serenades by Dvorak and Brahms, and a "What the Wild Flowers Tell Me" movement by Mahler, would provide a pastoral mood change from heavy-duty symphonic fare – like "Harmonielehre," for example. The lightweight pieces could also, principal hornist James Sommerville suggested in an "Underscore Friday" talk from the stage, entice listeners out into the Berkshires' lovely lakes and woods.
But, just as streams run low in summer, the concert meandered along uneventfully. In music designed to showcase the winds and brasses in a reduced orchestra, their blend wasn't their best and the playing generally mellowed out.
Dvorak's Serenade for winds, Opus 44, and Brahms' dark-hued Serenade No. 2, Opus 16, which omits violins, flanked Britten's thinned-out arrangement of the "Wild Flowers" minuet from Mahler's Symphony No. 3 — which, in this company, became another serenade.
As soloist in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, Yefim Bronfman put some fire into the evening. His thundering octaves and pearly scales went beyond virtuosity to bring out the music's more personal qualities.
Yesterday afternoon's concert introduced BSO assistant conductor Moritz Gnann, who made his debut in Mahler's Symphony No. 1. It received a slowly paced, uneven performance in which things that had promise — a tempo, a turn of phrase – didn't match up with others that followed. The blast of eight horns in the grand climax, the players standing, wowed the audience.
Nelson Freire completed a weekend trilogy of outstanding pianists, playing Mozart's youthful Concerto No. 9, K. 271. The performance was a happy convergence of his subdued elegance and the BSO's more forward approach under the German Gnann.
The program was a mirror image of Andris Nelsons' opening BSO program nine days earlier. The music director had Mozart's last piano concerto and Mahler's last symphony; Gnann had Mozart's first mature piano concerto and Mahler's first symphony. Is there a moral here?