“We few, we happy few.” That was Shakespeare’s Henry V anticipating the English army’s coming victory-against-all-odds at the Battle of Agincourt. He was thinking of how lucky people were to be there at such an auspicious event. Fortunately, there were happy thousands in the audience at Tanglewood’s opening night concert, because such riches should be spread as widely as possible. The concert was made up of a short Hebrew prayer composed for baritone voice and orchestra by Leonard Bernstein; Liszt’s First Piano Concerto (taking the place of Bernstein’s Second Symphony, which had to be cancelled at the last minute due to the unfortunate withdrawal of Jean-Yves Thibaudet because of a death in his family); and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
The Bernstein prayer is set to a few sentences from Numbers 6:24-26, which are used in the Jewish morning service and also as a blessing by Jewish parents for their children. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his face to you and give you peace.” Bernstein’s Opening Prayer was written for the reopening of Carnegie Hall after its restoration in 1986. It was not the baritone soloist Jack Canfield’s fault that the voice part is written so low as to be difficult to project in a large space such as the Tanglewood Shed. The orchestral accompaniment was beautifully hushed and deeply felt.
As a replacement for the Bernstein Second Symphony, the Liszt concerto was a treat. It was written, of course, to display the pianistic skills of the composer, who gave the premiere in 1853. And it serves up the whole gamut of riveting pianism — from cascading runs, dreamy melodies, and rippling accompaniments, to pounding octaves, crossing hands, and thick, multi-note chords. The superstar Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who has made a specialty of this concerto, turned in a bravura performance, clarifying all textures, conquering every difficulty, and making touching poetry at every opportunity. Her dazzling technique and profound musicality surely make her the Liszt of our times. Her encore — the “Variations on a Theme from Carmen” by Vladimir Horowitz — was written as a tour de force by the great Russian American pianist on the theme of the Gypsy Dance from Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen.” Ms. Wang played it with such command and panache that the audience rose to its feet as one.
Having one of the world’s greatest orchestras partnering with one of the world’s greatest conductors in mutual admiration and collegiality results in music-making of the highest order. This was evident in the second half of the program, when 100 or so musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave us a stunning performance of Stravinsky’s masterpiece “The Rite of Spring.” This music — originally written to accompany a ballet — is by turns savage, obstinate, highly evocative, and peacefully meditative. Technically it is an enormous challenge both to perform and to conduct, with its constantly changing meters, clashing keys, irregular rhythms, and highly exposed solo passages. The orchestra played it with perfect precision, led by a conductor who has mastered every nuance of this remarkable score. I have seen many famous conductors who wave their arms around mightily during this piece, but few who know the music as intimately or can convey this knowledge to the performers so clearly and expressively as Andris Nelsons. His reading expanded the breadth of the slow passages to sonorous effect, while the headlong intensity of the faster music left one breathless.