BSO opens Tanglewood season under the weather

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LENOX — It could have been worse. It could have been a thunderstorm. Or a hurricane.

It was only a steady July rain. The soggy weather saturated the Boston Symphony Orchestra's opening night Friday at Tanglewood. But dampened instruments and a less than gala atmosphere only partly accounted for playing that didn't, let's say, rise to the occasion.

It's not a new story. Every summer, the BSO comes back from vacation in need of the master's hand to shape it up. With music director Andris Nelsons absent until later this month, it fell to Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe to do the honors for the second year in a row.

Lacombe, who becomes chief conductor of the Bonn Opera in Germany this fall, also took Saturday night's concert. The first half sounded as dispirited as opening night. It took the thumping simplicities of Orff's "Carmina burana," as the evening's finale, to rouse slumbering spirits and round off the weekend.

The two programs ran on parallel tracks. Each began with a pair of French works and ended with a big symphonic bang. Except for a dip into Saint-Saëns, the time frame was the first half of the 20th century. Saturday's French works — Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloé" Suite No. 2 — were further linked by their origin as Diaghilev ballets.

"Faun" and "Daphnis" provided a journey into exotic landscapes — Debussy's dreamy and mystical, Ravel's lush and rapturous. Except for Elizabeth Rowe's languorous flute solo in each, the playing in each was unblended and tentative; in Ravel, it turned episodic, even within scenes. In the final "Daphnis" scene, the super-sized Tanglewood Festival Chorus overwhelmed the laboring orchestra.

Subtlety isn't the point in "Carmina burana." Its simple harmonies and pounding rhythms fired up the BSO, the festival chorus, the Norway Pond Junior Minstrels (a children's chorus) and three lusty soloists: baritone Stephen Powell as the drunken abbot and panting lover; soprano Nadine Sierra as the sweetly yielding maiden, and tenor Jean-Francis Monvoisin as the roasting swan.

The chorus, prepared by Betsy Burleigh, lacked its accustomed unity. Amid occasional raggedness, it crooned the sweetness of love and grandly turned Fortune's wheel. The abbot's swaggering pomposity was enhanced by a burp. With supertitles, the general bawdiness earned an X rating. "Carmina" is "Carmina." And audiences love it.

From out front, Lacombe seemed to have the right ideas about the music at hand in both programs, but until "Carmina," what emerged in response was unfocused, unshaped and, in Koussevitzky's word, not "togedder."

On Friday, the BSO seemed to be feeling its way into Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, a wartime work in the heroic mold of his "Alexander Nevsky." The sound was thin and weighted toward the brasses and winds. Phrasing was generic rather than specific. Despite effective moments, momentum never really built.

As Friday's soloist, Joshua Bell received a hero's ovation before he even played a note. When he played Saint-Saëns' Violin Concerto No. 3, it was with his accustomed command and suavity, rising to silken elegance in the slow movement. The concerto is sugar and cream without the coffee.

The program opened with Ravel's "Alborada del gracioso" (roughly, "dawn song of the jester") in a swirling but brass-heavy performance. Pray for better weather.


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