Joshua Bell plays violin through crushing heat and humidity Saturday. Bell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto
Joshua Bell plays violin through crushing heat and humidity Saturday. Bell and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony for a crowd of around 9,000.

LENOX -- The call is out among pundits and some musicians: symphony orchestras must repent, reform and behave more like rock bands. Otherwise, no audience.

So what does the Boston Symphony Orchestra do on opening night at Tanglewood? It plays the most traditional program possible: all-Tchaikovsky.

Bolder things lie ahead but the BSO knows its Tanglewood audience. A large crowd -- at a guess, about 9,000 -- populated the Shed and lawn Friday to hear violinist Joshua Bell and the orchestra labor through Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony in sauna-like weather.

The symbolism was inescapable. For many reasons -- not least, stimulation -- new music is necessary, but mainstream audiences want their stars and old favorites. And the old masterpieces keep coming back because they are masterpieces.

While awaiting the arrival of music director-designate Andris Nelsons next year, the BSO turned to the ever-reliable Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos to preside over the Friday and Saturday opening programs.

Fruhbeck, 79 and looking frail, alternated between standing and sitting to conduct, but his musical powers seemed undimmed.

Saturday's far more successful (and less well-attended) program was Mahler's world-embracing Third Symphony, whose first movement the composer once described as "summer comes marching in." Indeed summer did. Neither humans nor their musical instruments were designed to perform at their best in such steamy weather and amid such sweat.


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So you had to listen beyond the sound -- often errant in pitch, unity and blend -- to get at the musical intent.

Even the formidable Bell had moments of struggle. The display passages in particular seemed to be chasing Tchaikovsky's romantic effusions as much as getting inside them. Yet there's good reason, beyond technique and stardom, why this violin soloist has kept coming back to Tanglewood for 25 consecutive years. The long cadenza and the slow movement were notable for his willingness to let the music unfold naturally over long spans.

Fruhbeck brought the Fifth Symphony's tempo changes, ponderings and outcries into an organic whole. It wasn't enough. Better playing, especially in the finale, which became a scramble, would have created a better sense of the destiny Tchaikovsky invokes.

If Tchaikovsky struggles against fate, Mahler transcends it in his Third Symphony, finding release in pantheism.

Perhaps oneness with nature in Tanglewood's outdoor setting helped Saturday by bringing a slightly cooler night. Or perhaps a series of BSO performances in March (under Daniele Gatti) helped. For whatever reason, the Mahler Third came together in a performance of transcendent beauty and power.

This was not an electric performance in the Leonard Bernstein tradition. Instead, Fruhbeck mined the inner riches to create a heaven-and-earth sense of unity. Within the six movements and over the long span, the controlled yet expansive playing knitted together -- and at the same time opened up -- a 100-minute drama that begins in funeral marches and ends with a vast paean to life.

The most transcendent moments came in the scherzo. The movement begins with quotation of the gentle satire of Mahler's cuckoo-loves-nightingale song. The bucolic atmosphere eases into an extended series of offstage solos for the posthorn, the old stagecoach signal.

Played by Thomas Rolfs on a true posthorn (not the usual trumpet substitute), these were so mellow, so melodious, that they seemed to come from some fairy-tale land. The enchantment led into Nietzsche's mysterious "Midnight Song" and provided a still center for the sprawl of music and incident all around.

In the long outer movements, Fruhbeck and the BSO followed the twists and turns of effect with close attention to detail - even wild, out-of-sync detail. The minuet-like second movement enjoyed childish innocence. Glorious masses of sound alternated with moments of poignancy and delicacy.

In the "Midnight Song," mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter sang with a silvery sheen that lightened some of the text's darker aspects (an alto voice is needed here). She joined the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children's Chorus, from Brookline, in the lusty, bell-ringing closing ode to heaven. The BSO brasses, ragged the night before, blazed forth in unity, with Rolfs, on trumpet, and trombonist Toby Oft outstanding in solos.

Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova are on leave after surgery. Assistant concertmaster Elita Kang filled in grandly.