Tanglewood Preview: Boston Symphony Orchestra takes charge


LENOX, MASS. — Pop, rock and folk have had their turn. Now, Tanglewood gets down to the business of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Eight weeks of BSO begin Friday night with violinist Joshua Bell as soloist and end on Aug. 28 with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. In between come other star attractions. Pop or classical, the welcome mat is out for audiences.

There's a gap in the BSO season, though. The question is not just who is on the podium, but who isn't on the podium. It couldn't be helped, but BSO music director Andris Nelsons was scheduled to be here for only two weeks — non-consecutive, at that — of the eight.

That means, even more than usual, a revolving door of guest conductors. Some are tried-and-true veterans — Charles Dutoit and Christoph von Dohnanyi high among them — and some are new to the BSO. Discoveries can be exciting but the dynamism and continuity a leader can provide are mostly missing.

There's a bright side, Anthony Fogg, the BSO's artistic administrator and newly named director of Tanglewood, points out.

"Tanglewood is a good place for us to introduce new conductors and soloists," he says, "because we have many programs [and] there are many weeks to fill. It's a different sort of dynamic than an entire week of subscription concerts [in Symphony Hall]." Count conductors Gustavo Gimeno and David Afkham among those newcomers.

Nelsons was scheduled to conduct a new production of Wagner's "Parsifal" at Germany's Bayreuth Festival until he abruptly walked out of rehearsals in an artistic dispute last week. The Bayreuth deal was already in place when the BSO signed him. It was not immediately clear whether the walkout would allow more time for Tanglewood.

Other Tanglewood stalwarts are missing entirely. Director laureate Seiji Ozawa had to cancel his first Tanglewood return since 2006 to recuperate from exhaustion from a spring tour. Former BSO concertmaster Joseph Silverstein and master teacher Phyllis Curtin died within the past year, and John Oliver, the founder-director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, has retired. He'll be replaced by guest conductors as the search for a new director goes on.

The BSO's big attraction are Acts I and II of Verdi's "Aida," conducted by Nelsons with his wife, much-acclaimed soprano Kristine Opolais, as the slave woman. Other highlights in the Shed include two death-haunted programs: Nelsons conducting Mahler's Ninth Symphony (the work with which he made his 2011 BSO debut as an emergency substitute) and Dohnanyi conducting Strauss' "Four Last Songs," with Renee Fleming singing, and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique."

Or you can have the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, John Williams' Film Night with the Pops, or Yo-Yo Ma playing John Williams' music with the BSO — plus seven other Pops events. There's something for everyone, that is. But while outstanding performances can make a difference, the BSO season overall gives an impression of a very mixed grill.

Nelsons' two weeks contrast with his three consecutive weeks last summer and the four to five weeks typically put in by Seiji Ozawa and James Levine. He will conduct five Tanglewood programs — four with the BSO, one with the student TMC Orchestra. He's a dynamo on the podium: His concentrated residency last summer, with special programming for his inaugural season, left no doubt about that.

Since then, he has taken the BSO on two tours of Europe; put out a second album in a recorded cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies with the BSO; won a Grammy for the first album; been appointed director (Kapellmeister) of the historic Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; guest-conducted major European orchestras, and planned recorded cycles of the Bruckner symphonies with the Gewandhaus and the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.

His BSO contract, recently extended into 2022, calls for 12 weeks a year in Boston; Leipzig gets him for eight weeks. Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of this man. How much is left for Tanglewood?

Meanwhile, interesting things are happening in Ozawa Hall. The Emerson String Quartet will give back-to-back concerts launching its 40th-anniversary season, and The Knights and the Australian Chamber Orchestra plan provocative crossover programs — the Aussies even recommending parental guidance for theirs.

The TMC Orchestra, as always, offers stimulating programs such as a pairing of Messiaen's ecstatic, rarely heard "Turangalila" Symphony and the American premiere of a new vocal work by George Benjamin, following the TMC's momentous American premiere of his opera "Written on Skin" in 2013.

Also at the music center, the five-day Festival of Contemporary Music, curated by composer Steven Stucky before his death this year, ranges across a broad spectrum of international composers. And the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, for high school-aged students, celebrates its 50th anniversary with special programming performed by faculty, alumni and students.


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