Tanglewood pulls back in 2016

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LENOX — Tanglewood 2015 was a season of celebrations: Andris Nelsons' debut as music director and the Tanglewood Music Center's 75th anniversary. By comparison, Tanglewood 2016 looks like a more or less random series of events.

Not every season can be gala and the BSO can do only so much in eight crowded weeks. Yet little in the coming season, announced last week, stands out as commanding or distinctive. Unusual works and unfamiliar names are on the docket, but Nelsons will be here for only two separated weeks of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's eight-week season.

If Nelsons put this season together, or even more if he didn't, you have to wonder: Is his recent appointment as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, plus his guest-conducting in Europe, including a "Tristan" at Bayreuth next summer, draining too much of his attention away from Tanglewood?

Nelsons' own programs begin with two with the BSO and one with the TMC Orchestra on the weekend of July 29-31. The major works with the BSO are Mahler's death-haunted Ninth Symphony (recalling Nelsons' BSO debut program) and Beethoven's Seventh. With the student orchestra, he'll have pianist Paul Lewis as soloist in an all-Brahms program.

Three weeks later, Nelsons returns to the BSO podium with Acts I and II of "Aida" on Aug. 20 — the summer's most ambitious BSO program — and a mixed program on the 21st with a Shakespearean emphasis. His wife, Met star Kristine Opolais, takes the title role in Verdi's opera.

That's it for the music director, whose prior commitment to Bayreuth's "Tristan" limits his presence here. Returning guest conductors spelling him include reliable veterans Charles Dutoit (newly named a Koussevitzky Artist in honor of his years of BSO service) and Christoph von Dohnányi. Newcomers include the little-known David Afkham and Gustavo Gimeno.

A lot of old chestnuts are scattered through the BSO season, beginning with Orff's "Carmina burana" on the opening Saturday and culminating in the Beethoven Ninth (Dohnányi conducts) on closing day. They'll draw crowds, and they are offset by less familiar works.

Consider the program of July 23. It opens with that grand old chestnut Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (Garrick Ohlsson is soloist), but goes on to Falla's "The Three-cornered Hat," an easy-to-take piece though not a crowd-grabber. So it goes in the Shed throughout the season.

There's nothing on the scale of the Mahler Sixth and Eighth that Nelsons conducted last year — to say nothing of such no-longer-given masterworks as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Bach's B minor Mass. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under whoever is to succeed John Oliver as director, makes four appearances. Its most unusual work is Rossini's Stabat Mater.

For more adventurous things, you have to go to Ozawa Hall. Two TMC Orchestra programs, for example, pair challenging, complementary works. One joins the American premiere of George Benjamin's "Dream of the Song" with Messiaen's visionary "Turangalila-symphonie." On a theme of social injustice, the other links Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14.

Other inventive Ozawa Hall programs — some with a crossover edge — come from The Knights, Chanticleer, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The Emerson String Quartet celebrates its 40th anniversary with back-to-back concerts.

To some extent, star power lies behind the BSO programming. Each weekend features one or more star performers — plus, on two weekends, a Pops concert — as a come-on to audiences. The attractions include long-time favorites like Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, as well as flaming recent arrivals like pianists Danlil Trifonov and Yuja Wang. Pianists loom large in the season.

As always, it's hard to fault the BSO for courting audiences with whatever weapons it has at hand. Attendance at classical concerts has been slowly declining over the past decade or so and more popular program-building has been slowly increasing as a counterbalance.

The big question remains: Where is Tanglewood going under Nelsons? His inaugural season showed the excitement he can generate as a conductor. But he's also music director and a music director exerts leadership and imagination, giving character and panache to a festival.

Tanglewood had those things under Seiji Ozawa and James Levine and it was beginning to have them under Nelsons last summer. Why stop now?


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