Monday July 16, 2012

LENOX - You don't go to a party in order to meditate on the state of the world.

That, perhaps, is the simplest way to sum up the 75th birthday party.

Tanglewood threw for itself Saturday night. Over the course of the 145-minute blast, everybody but the grounds grew, it seemed, trooped across the Shed stage.

This was a supersized Tanglewood- on- Parade lovefest, with TV cameras picking up every moment. It began with Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart reminding the supersized audience - about 16,000 people - that the show was going to be telecast on PBS and in Europe, and they should applaud often and loud. Which they did, happily.

James Taylor received a bigger roar of approval than any of the classical stars on hand. It was that kind of evening.

Incidentally, there were Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts on either side of the gala. On Friday night, violinist Anne- Sophie Mutter, who broke speed records in Sarasate's " Carmen" Fantasy at the gala, doubled as soloist and conductor in a Mozart program. Then Sunday afternoon, conductor Andris Nelsons, who led two orchestras in the gala, made an official Tanglewood debut in a Stravinsky- Brahms program. (See below.)

The gala was Tanglewood's biggest since the gaudy 70thbirthday bash for Leonard Bernstein in 1988. The 2012 edition was arranged to show off Tanglewood's heritage, personages and constituencies rather than for musical coherence.


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Some of the performances, too, seemed thrown together more to get them onto the stage in a hurry than for musical perfection.

A focal point of the TV-lit evening was the presentation, in absentia, of the inaugural Tanglewood Medal to former BSO director Seiji Ozawa, 76, who remained sidelined in Japan by major illnesses.

Pops conductor laureate John Williams and cellist Yo-Yo Ma made the presentation in front of a projection of a smiling Ozawa about 15 younger than now. Williams hailed Ozawa for having " nourished and sustained" Tanglewood during his 29-year reign.

Ma read a response in which Ozawa said he holds a "deep and special place in my heart for Tanglewood," and hopes to return. Rightly, old difficulties were forgotten.

The program progressed, with time- outs for stage changes and a filmed tour through Tanglewood history, from the Pops to the student Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra to the BSO. Five conductors - TMC alumni Stefan Asbury and David Zinman along with Lockhart, Williams and Nelsons - shared podium duties. Soloists, in addition to Taylor and Mutter, were Ma and pianists Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin. For one listener, the most affecting performance in the midst of all this celebration was Ax's gentle dip into two movements from Haydn's Piano Concerto in D. Serkin took a spacious approach to the major piano part in Beethoven's Choral Fantasia, which Zinman conducted to close out the concert. Six past or present TMC students sang lustily as soloists.

The evening had its bizarre touches. One was the sight of the 130 members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus hovering onstage throughout the evening like ghostly witnesses until they could break into their few minutes of song in the Choral Fantasia's rousing finale. Then there was the intrusive TV camera that bobbed up and down along the lip of the stage as it peered into soloists' faces like a bird of prey. Fireworks followed. You can see the show on PBS on Aug. 10. Nelsons, Saturday's conductor, is a 33-year-old Latvian who has already notched many of the world's leading orchestras and opera houses in his belt. He'll likely get a close look in the BSO's music director search.

On the evidence of Saturday's concert, in which he rigorously wore a dark blue suit while the orchestra went tieless in the heat, the match has yet to be made. Possibly because of the previous night's exertions, the BSO sounded tired, under-rehearsed or both in the short program.

Stravinsky's tart "Symphony of Psalms" sounded smoothed out, its biting voices blurred. The full festival chorus tended to overwhelm the scaled-down orchestra.

Brahms' Symphony No. 2 received a highly charged performance that, had it been more securely played, might have delivered the intended punch. Similar qualities marked the energetic conductor's BSO performance of Ravel's "La Valse" at the gala. The violence inherent in the piece overshadowed the waltz episodes' allure.

On Friday, German violinist Anne- Sophie Mutter and a BSO of about 30 players took a spin through the Second, Third and Fifth Mozart violin concertos. The wonder wasn't that they made it through in the tropical heat, but that they did it so well. Inevitably, Mutter's playing suffered blemishes but, in the doubling as soloist and conductor, her imagination and bravery were more interesting than cool perfection would have been.

Mutter, who prefers to think of herself as leader rather than conductor in the dual role, is a natural for it in these smallorchestra concertos. Using basic gestures but lots of body language, she infected the reduced BSO with her enthusiasm and flair. The orchestra supported her with not only attentive playing but also affectionate smiles and applause.

The solo work was full of inventive touches, including sly wit in the jokes and surprises of the rondo finales. The cadenzas, by three composers, were of variable quality but the young Mozart left not a cloud in the overcast sky.