LENOX — Cars filled the lots. Picnickers filled the lawn. Friends greeted friends.
Handshakes, hugs, kisses on all sides.
The sun came out!
Everything was the same, but everything felt different. Was Tanglewood really open for classical music again? Was the Boston Symphony Orchestra really playing it for an audience for the first time in 16 months?
You had to blink your eyes and shake your head, but it was true. The BSO’s first post-pandemic program was not only a great concert, but also a great occasion. A huge standing ovation welcomed the players back Saturday night as they streamed onto the Shed’s stage. A similar outpouring greeted music director Andris Nelsons as he followed them out.
The feeling was mutual. In a welcome from the stage, Nelsons told the gathering “how much we missed you, how much we missed performing music together, and of course sharing it with the audience.” He introduced the orchestra’s new president/CEO, Gail Samuel, who thanked the audience for its support for the orchestra during troubled times.
The BSO was stoked for the celebratory all-Beethoven program. From the eruption at the first big chord in the opening “Creatures of Prometheus” Overture, the playing was fearlessly disciplined and vibrant, turning old masterpieces — the Fifth Piano Concerto (“Emperor”) and Fifth Symphony — into fresh experiences. But, that’s the way with Beethoven. He never gets old. He can just become routine.
The program played before a sold-out audience of 9,000, the post-pandemic limit. The only obvious evidence of protocol was an intermission-less, 80-minute program with social distancing, creating checkerboard seating in the Shed. Powerful ventilators whooshed the Shed during breaks between pieces.
Composed four years apart in the early 1800s, amid war with France, the major works and their performances mirrored Beethoven’s two sides. The Fifth Concerto, with Emanuel Ax as the eloquent soloist, was broadly paced and spacious.
Let others pound away at this expansive 1812 concerto. Ax had unforced power in the dizzying runs, with a pearly tone in softer passages. He and Nelsons conspired to make the serene adagio seem a prayer and its deliverance. Grandeur marked the finale.
Nelsons brought a streak of outright violence to the symphony’s first movement, with the timpani hammering like cannon fire. From there to the explosion of triumph in the finale, with the four-note fate motif never far from the surface, tension built inexorably. When triumph came, it seemed not only Beethoven’s, but also the musicians’ and listeners’, in their release, however transitory, from household bondage.
The entire evening, coming at such a time and with such impact, seemed nothing less than a triumph of the human spirit.
A long sit
After the Beethoven, and with a return of showers and humidity, Sunday’s program under Nelsons was in danger of becoming an anticlimax. Indeed, it ran a full 100 minutes without intermission and did wind up seeming overstuffed with late romantic music from East Europe, a Nelsons specialty.
As soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the Latvian Baiba Skride, brought out its subdued, contemplative qualities more than its Nordic brooding. She was evidently troubled by the humidity, and her tone in the Shed’s spaces was small against Sibelius’ sometimes muscular orchestration, but in a poised, sensitive performance she mastered the long cadenza’s fearsome technical challenges.
The program opened with Carlos Simon’s brief “Fate Now Conquers,” a jittery, rushing challenge to Beethoven’s ultimately unchallengeable defiance of fate in the Fifth Symphony. The afternoon’s finale was Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony, which received an appropriate sun-and-shadow performance that seemed to need a finishing rehearsal.
The performance also marked the return of chirping birds to the Shed’s rafters. Ah, fate.
Can music protest the world’s evils and dangers, such as climate change?
Well, not literally. But, Vijay Iyer’s “Crisis Modes,” performed Friday night in The Knights’ weekend opener concert, makes a powerful statement with overtones of apocalypse. The American composer, 49, describes the 17-minute piece from 2019 as a memo to the future about “what it is possible for us to imagine from this scarred planet at the dawn of 2019.”
The 42-member orchestra from Brooklyn, led by Eric Jacobsen, brought a program that bracketed Iyer’s terrors between two works offering homage, and closed with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“Cosmic Modes” follows in a line of protest pieces by composers in recent generations. Three interlocking sections are titled “Appeal,” “Denials” and “Agonism.” The outer sections, tinged by Asian and African influences, are ominous and driven. Slow and keening, “Denials” is the heart of the piece, and with a bit of imagination can be heard as an agonized call for awareness and action. Whatever the effect, the writing seizes the listener. Iyer took a bow.
The weather was not kind to The Knights. Humidity especially muffled the opening work, Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin, causing problems of intonation, balances and rhythm in the memorialization of four of Ravel’s friends killed in World War I.
And The Knights did no favor to four excerpts from Mary Lou Williams’ “Zodiac Suite” by placing them immediately after Iyer’s shocker. In her 1940s suite, Williams, a jazz pianist, composer and arranger who died in 1981, pays tribute to 12 jazz musicians of her day, but the piece came across like a faded photo from the era.
The “Rhapsody in Blue” performance seemed to be looking for new flavors in an old dish. The familiar jazz effects, with Aaron Diehl as pianist, were pushed and twisted. The jazz classic didn’t gain in character.
“Ascending Bird,” by Colin Jacobsen (Eric Jacobsen’s brother and co-director) and Siamak Aghaei, furnished a stomp as an encore.