LENOX — Put it this way: "La Mer" encountered rough seas.
After a concert delay in which arriving concertgoers were herded into shelters until a lightning storm passed, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played its Friday night Tanglewood concert in high humidity that seeped into players and instruments alike. Charles Dutoit labored valiantly on the podium but only one of four works that he led was able to get its head above water.
The program was the first of four honoring Dutoit as this summer's Koussevitzky Artist. The Swiss conductor, still buoyant at 79, is the man to go to for Debussy and Ravel. In the evening's finale, he got Ravel's "Bolero" to pursue its relentless course up to and through the shock of the final eruption. Madness is and was the point.
The rest of the evening was a soggy tale. Even Emanuel Ax, usually the most dependable of pianists, was troubled by dampness – visibly, as he kept wiping his hands on a towel. The keyboard had to be slippery, too.
Dutoit is being honored for his 35-year association with the BSO, culminating in his rescue of a 2014 tour of China and Japan when Lorin Maazel, the scheduled conductor, had to bow out. Of the four grand old men who have sustained the BSO as guest conductors over the last couple of decades – Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, Kurt Masur, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Dutoit – only Dutoit dependably comes back. Dohnanyi, the only other one still living, canceled his concerts this year because of an eye problem.
Normally, Dutoit's "La Mer" combines richness and transparency in the distinctive sound and harmonies essential to this work. This time around, the textures in the three seascapes were clearer than he could have wanted. The billowing waves and flecks of foam rolled in stark relief as the orchestra, given the weather, simply could not unify or blend in its accustomed manner.
Ax played one of Mozart's gentler piano concertos, No. 22 in E-flat. The playing had its moments of understated elegance but as a whole amid the humidity tended to drag.
The program opened with a Tanglewood rarity, the overture to Nicolai's Shakespearean operetta "The Merry Wives of Winds." Dutoit showed he could whip up Viennese froth as well as French waves.
Tanglewood is a testing ground for new artists, and two of them, conductor David Afkham and pianist Igor Levit, went up against the heat and humidity (but no thunderstorm) in their BSO debuts yesterday afternoon. Both fared well.
Levit, who lives in Germany, came with a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 that tipped the balance attractively toward the young composer's questing spirit rather than his keyboard dramatics, though some quieter passages faded from audibility. The big cadenza was unusually far-ranging; the largo movement was unusually slow but sustained by the pianist's thoughtful phrasing. Afkham and the BSO lent sympathetic support.
Afkham, who is principal conductor of the Spanish National Orchestra and Chorus, opened with a somewhat bumpy account of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture and closed with Schumann's Symphony No. 4 (the revised version). The well-played symphony performance lent coherence to Schumann's romantic ardors even as it tapped generously into them.