LENOX — A casual listener attending Saturday night’s performance at Tanglewood might have thought the Boston Symphony Orchestra was in especially good form in a program of Berlioz and Mahler. They would have been wrong.
The orchestra playing was actually the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, an orchestra put together from scratch every summer and made up of young players chosen by audition from all over the world. The average age of these musicians is probably about 25, though many are younger. While here, they undergo a rigorous eight weeks of lessons, practicing and performing. One of their privileges as Tanglewood Fellows is to engage in performances with distinguished soloists and conductors.
On Saturday night they were accompanying Christine Goerke, the award-winning American soprano, whose powerful voice is in demand worldwide for dramatic roles, especially in the music dramas of Wagner. She sang the highly theatrical role of Cleopatra in Hector Berlioz’s 1829 “The Death of Cleopatra,” a concert piece for soprano and orchestra on a text by the poet and playwright Pierre-Ange Vieillard. Her voice carried to the back of The Shed when necessary but was tender and touching in the final verses when Cleopatra determines she can no longer carry on with life. The orchestra was led by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons and the young musicians played with great passion and commitment.
The triumph of the evening was the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s performance, also led by Nelsons, of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Mahler was a complex and introspective man, who once had a lengthy session with Freud, soon after the publication of Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Mahler was tortured by the infidelity of his young wife, the infamous Alma Mahler, who seemed to devote her life (before, during and after her marriage to Mahler) to collecting famous men.
Mahler’s music is completely idiosyncratic. Nobody else sounds like him and his music is instantly identifiable. Made up of dreams dissolving into nightmares, marches softening into dances, lengthy crescendos running into sudden stops, banal folk tunes, the collision of contrasting themes, vigorous pounding and the tenderest lyricism, Mahler’s compositions represent the ambiguity of a citizen of Bohemia living in Austria, a Jew among Christians, and a creative genius who was only able to compose part time, since he made his living as a conductor.
Perhaps most importantly, Mahler was a figure who understood the cross currents of fin-de-siècle Vienna, where liberalism met anti-Semitism, social and political traditions were disintegrating, and artistic modernism was born. He also straddled the great cultural shift in the musical world around the turn of the twentieth century, in which the idealism of the central-European Romantics was being tempered by the questioning of artistic and idealistic innocence. In addition to everything else, Mahler’s music can be bitingly sarcastic.
The five movements of the Fifth Symphony range from the funeral march of the first movement, the strength and power of the second, and the irony of the scherzo to the heavenly beauty of the famous Adagietto, written for harp and strings alone, and the contrapuntal mastery of the finale, which begins with a perky tune and gradually evolves into a brilliant tapestry.
The symphony is written for a very large orchestra, and in addition to the remarkable performance by the orchestra as a whole, many of the section leaders shone, including Shea Kelsay displaying her consistently clarion tone as first trumpet, Nathan Cloeter, the magnificent horn player, the compelling first trombone player Robyn Smith, and the crystal-clear articulation and power of the tuba player Colin Benton. The harpist Hannah Cope sounded lovely in the Adagietto, while the concertmaster Paul Halberstadt led his complement of strings by pristine example.
This list leaves out the remaining 90 or so performers making up this high-achieving group of players, brought together only three weeks or so ago, who worked on this demanding program with only seven rehearsals. They all deserve accolades.
The only way you could tell this orchestra apart from the world-class Boston Symphony Orchestra is that they were occasionally not completely simultaneous in their entrances. To attain this kind of accuracy takes the decades of playing together that only a long-term professional orchestra can achieve. But what they lacked in precision they more than made up for in intensity, verve, and commitment.
Mr. Nelsons, who, with his punishing schedule, has seemed a little tired recently, was clearly energized by these young men and women who have devoted so much of their lives to one of the glories of Western democracy — a classical concert orchestra, in which every single member contributes his or her own part towards a shared goal.