Tanglewood 2014 in review: A tale of two seasons


LENOX -- There was Andris Nelsons, and there was the rest of the season.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood season didn't divide neatly in half, but Nelsons' arrival as the next music director was an occasion unto itself. If that sounds a little like the arrival of a Roman emperor in a chariot, that's how it came across, both musically and in the media.

In Nelsons' four introductory concerts during July, it was plain to see why the BSO had sprung for this 35-year-old Latvian who has been setting Europe on fire. The rapport with the orchestra was strong. The audiences gave him a rousing welcome.

Yet while the overall impression was positive, a paradox lingers.

Nelsons was billed as a charismatic leader, and on the podium, so he was. In other ways, he was surprisingly conservative. His programming, for example: Except for a showy but empty trumpet concerto by Rolf Martinsson and a sparkler by Christopher Rouse, it stuck to the standards. (His inaugural season in Boston bears a similar stamp.) He apparently wasn't taking chances.

In performance, he showed a predilection for elastic tempos and rhythms. Dvorak's Eighth Symphony gained in expansiveness. Brahms' Third was pulled apart. Beethoven's Fifth moved steadily ahead. Where was Nelsons?

A puzzle.

In talk appearances, he seemed unwilling to speak about musical or personal goals in anything but fuzzy generalities. Perhaps because he is not officially the boss until next month, he was just being circumspect. Yet the contrast with James Levine, who came in with big ideas and put them into practice, was inescapable.

We in the Berkshires don't really know this man yet. And, with his heavy commitments in Europe, he'll only be here three weeks next year. So, in the end, this summer was a tantalizing taste of things to come.

It wasn't just Nelsons that seemed conservative. The BSO season as a whole had a conservative air.

The orchestra's playing remained at a high level -- you can't ask for playing better than in the final day's Beethoven Ninth -- but the programming seemed scattershot and tame. An emphasis on American music was glancing at best. The most ambitious works were Mahler's Second Symphony and Bernstein's "Candide," and one program was downright weird: Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto paired with operatic excerpts from Verdi. As usual, standard repertoire predominated.

As managing director Mark Volpe said in an end-of-season interview, the BSO's hands, to a certain extent, are tied. Today's audiences, bred on celebrity culture, demand name brands -- if not in performers, then in composers. Witness the huge traffic jams for Yo-Yo Ma and the Beethoven Ninth. And the enduring popularity of the Pops.

It's also true that, with three programs to present most weeks, the BSO has to fall back on old standbys.

Among guest conductors, the BSO felt the loss of two esteemed veterans: Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who died just before the season, and Christoph von Dohnányi, who canceled because of sickness in the family. The veteran Charles Dutoit and recent newcomer Stephane Deneve provided experience and depth.

For its 20th anniversary, Seiji Ozawa Hall offered a programming bonanza that ranged from a marathon of Shostakovich's last quartets, magnificently performed by the Emerson String Quartet, to a revival of Jack Beeson's 1965 opera "Lizzie Borden," presented by the Boston Lyric Opera.

Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos played a generous evening of Brahms. Back-to-back debuts by The Knights, a genre-bending, Brooklyn-based ensemble, and the National Youth Orchestra, sponsored by Carnegie Hall, showcased energy and talent from younger generations.

Also in the youth department, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra gave some of the season's most vital concerts. TMC students and alumni also carried the brunt in the important Festival of Contemporary Music.

For the school's 75th anniversary next summer, Volpe said, there will be a programming bonanza featuring past and present students. Nelsons will lead a mixed BSO-TMC performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony as part of the celebration.

Nelsons' BSO programs will be devoted largely to repertoire the orchestra will take on tour to Europe during the eighth Tanglewood week, Volpe said. A replacement ensemble for that week has yet to be scheduled, he said.

Tanglewood is changing, along with the society around it. The focus of the eight central weeks remains -- as it should -- on classical music and occasional opera, but the demand for popular programming, together with such amenities as ever-proliferating food and drink concessions, is changing the concert-going experience. Marketing also plays to popular expectations.

To the extent that such changes bring in audiences, they're a plus. The BSO is also emphasizing educational programs, including activities for kids, as audience-builders. But a festival of classical music is not a carnival, even if it sometimes looks like one.

Welcome, Andris Nelsons. Your challenges await.


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