Tanglewood: Nelsons departs on note of triumph


LENOX -- Andris Nelsons concluded his Tanglewood stay in triumph Sunday with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which proved symbolic because of its struggle to reach that conclusion.

Overall, the impression from Nelsons’ two weekends of concerts was clear: The Boston Symphony Orchestra has picked a dynamic next music director who can take it into a promising future. Sunday’s concert, with a gorgeous recent piece by Christopher Rouse, violinist Joshua Bell as soloist, a fired-up BSO and a large crowd in attendance, was a great sendoff by and for the 35-year-old Latvian.

Nelsons showed that no matter how many times the Beethoven Fifth is played, a surely paced, shaped and articulated performance -- with splendor of sound from a responsive orchestra -- can make it sound fresh and life-affirming again. The measured tread of the third movement made the finale’s release of pent-up energy all the more explosive.

Rouse’s "Rapture," an 11-minute arc leading from muted, Mahler-like stirrings to a thumping, all-you’ve-got proclamation at the end, made good on the composer’s promise of "blinding ecstasy." And Bell’s suave, silken-toned performance of Lalo’s "Symphonie espagnole" delivered audience-thrilling virtuosity in the insinuating Spanish rhythms and tunes, yet never lost sight of the underlying musical thread.

And Nelsons, as he had in the Saturday night’s concerto, showed he could mold an accompaniment to fit a soloist’s needs and wishes. Experience in the opera house told.

Nelsons’ visit was notable for many things, including a public relations blitz (during which he confessed a love of sashimi). But something went wrong in Brahms’ Third Symphony in Saturday night’s penultimate concert. The BSO’s playing was coarse and lifeless, and Nelsons’ sluggish, elastic tempos and phrasing, along with heavy underlining of key moments, pulled the musical tissues apart.

It may be that the director-designate was being elastic himself. In his Brahms Third in Boston last October, the BSO’s playing was refined and, if anything, driven a little hard. Was Nelsons, who has shown a penchant for elastic twists in romantic literature, experimenting? Or was the performance hastily thrown together?

The Brahms Third is notoriously difficult to bring off. Unlike Brahms’ three other symphonies, it has little overt drama and exists primarily in shadows. Pointing up inner stresses might have created drama but, paradoxically, it had the effect of flattening the music out.

Because of the Third’s subtlety and quiet ending, it was situated first on Saturday’s program. The second half got back on track, beginning with Rolf Martinsson’s Trumpet Concerto No. 1, "Bridge." (The "bridge" is a two-cadenza middle section.)

The Swedish composer’s boldly scored, half-hour work provided a vehicle for the virtuosity and artistry of soloist Hakan Hardenberger. He and Nelsons had performed the piece together several times before, and the collaboration sounded seamless in the BSO’s brilliant orchestral colors. The showy work seemed a fit for the soundtrack of a noir film.

For a colorful finale, Nelsons revived Tchaikovsky’s once popular "Capriccio italien," creating the tunes and airs of an Italian street festival.

In advance, Friday’s concert looked like a footnote to the weekend’s doings. It turned out to be considerably more.

As conductor, Edward Gardner, director of the English National Opera, replaced Christoph von Dohnanyi, who canceled because of health concerns. Gardner is also principal guest conductor of England’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where Nelsons remains director for the coming season.

If that’s favoritism, so be it.

The wiry Gardner drew vivid playing from the BSO in Strauss’ "Till Eulenspiegel," making the rogue scamper, cavort and generally thumb his nose at the world. The playing faltered somewhat in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the evening’s finale, but the blame may belong to outdoors chill that seeped into fingers and instruments. The excitement remained.

On paper, the program looked strange. Why were selections from Copland’s folksy "Old American Songs" standing between two landmarks of the Germanic repertoire?

Also standing between them, right there onstage, was the explanation: baritone Thomas Hampson. Two nights before, he had given a recital marking the 150th anniversary of Strauss’ birth, and the Copland songs are a specialty of his. He sang them with his accustomed luxury of tone and expression, drawing out the nostalgia of "Long Time Ago" and rattling off the minstrelsy of "The Boatman’s Dance."

Gardner the BSO were with him but again, Tanglewood plunged the house into darkness, making it impossible for most of the audience to follow the thoughtfully provided texts.

Gardner divided the violin sections in the classical style (Nelsons prefers them bunched) and used a reduced orchestra for Beethoven. In "Till," the seating lent extra brilliance and detail. James Sommerville’s horn solos personified the joker’s spirit, which indeed rose from the guillotine in the final laugh in the orchestra. The Beethoven performance, though not the last word in tidiness, rolled along at a boil.


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