LENOX -- Three impressions stand out from the Tanglewood season.
Greatest success: the American premiere of George Benjamin's opera "Written on Skin."
Greatest failure: Andris Nelsons' cancellation of his only program of the summer.
Overall feeling: crowd-pleasing programming, with emphasis on warhorses, Pops and pop.
In some ways, it was a typical Tanglewood season. It began on a high with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos' Mahler Third and ended on a high with Bernard Haitink's Beethoven Ninth. There were highs in between, a few lows and generally excellent playing by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On the Tanglewood Music Center side, there was excitement aplenty.
But for BSO followers, a sense of disappointment, and even foreboding, clouded the season. A few days before Nelsons was to make his much-heralded debut as music director-designate, he suffered a concussion and dropped out of the Verdi Requiem.
Nelsons has since returned to action, conducting at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany and at the London Proms. In an end-of-season interview, BSO managing director Mark Volpe reported that the conductor has been recovering satisfactorily but doctors are still telling him to take it easy.
The good news, according to Volpe, is that Nelsons is scheduled to conduct four Tanglewood programs over two weekends next July. The details, including Nelsons' possible commitment to the TMC, will be worked out in meetings next month in London between Nelsons, Volpe and artistic administrator Anthony Fogg. Volpe said the extent of Nelsons' commitment to Bayreuth, where he is normally in residence during the summer, is also to be discussed.
Meanwhile, Nelsons is on board to return to Symphony Hall in a Wagner-Mozart-Brahms program in October and a single concert performance of Strauss' "Salome" in March. He officially takes over as music director in September 2014.
Tanglewood's undoubted low point was the last-minute plug-in of the Italian Carlo Montanaro as the Verdi Requiem conductor. Unsatisfactory as the performance was, you had to admire him for trying. He became a kind of sacrificial goat.
On the other hand, the other half of the Verdi-Wagner bicentennial celebration, Act III of Wagner's "Walküre," was a high point. With newcomer Lothar Koenigs conducting and Bryn Terfel reprising his signature role of Wotan, the BSO sounded right at home in the operatic repertoire.
It was to the TMC and Ozawa Hall, however, that you had to look for a season of adventurous opera.
John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby," revived by Emanuel Music of Boston, proved a flawed attempt to capture the story and spirit of the Roaring 20s morality tale. But then TMC students took over with an imaginative Mark Morris staging of Britten's "Curlew River," paired with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," and a concert version of Benjamin's opera.
A morality tale for the 21st century from a 14th-century source, "Written on Skin" packed a wallop like that of "Salome." It was a major coup for Tanglewood to land the first American performance of an opera that had made the round of leading European houses since its world premiere last year. And in opera productions only 11 days apart, TMC students showed well-honed singing and acting skills.
A few other highs: conductor Christoph von Dohnányi's consistently strong contributions; conductor Stéphane Denève's pair of programs: Paul Lewis' program of Schubert's last three piano sonatas, and a bevy of other outstanding pianists, including Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax, as soloists. A low: Pinchas Zukerman's syrupy baroque program (despite fine contributions by BSO soloists).
Over the past few years, the season has fallen into a fairly consistent pattern: two opening weekends of mostly pop followed by eight classical weeks and a Labor Day weekend of pop. The pattern held this year despite the absence of James Taylor, who usually gives three sold-out concerts.
Volpe said 2014 will probably follow the same format, though pop acts book late. He wasn't sure if there would again be five Pops concerts, a record number. And it is unlikely, he said, that any other movie would lend itself to live BSO participation as did "West Side Story."
Classical, in other words, remains -- and should remain -- the heart of the place. More significantly in the long run than pop add-ons, the trend toward audience-friendly BSO programming continued this year with many standard works, newly instituted talks from the stage, and only one composition from the last half-century, Elliott Carter's four-minute "Sound Fields."
Celebrity artists, salted through the season, heightened public appeal, though as always there was a number of debuts. Thanks partly to good weather, season attendance will probably be up.
Yet this was the ninth season out of the last 12 during which the BSO played Tanglewood without a music director in residence. The orchestra sounded in fine shape but also seemed to be marking time while awaiting Nelsons. The big question is what direction a 34-year-old Latvian conductor, with little experience of the United States, will take.
For the time being, Tanglewood seems to be doing about what the public wants. In a time of flagging attendance for classical music in general, perhaps that's all you can ask. But an orchestra and festival without a musician at the top can seem like a ship without a captain. Pray for a concussion-free future.