LENOX — For the month of July — the whole first half of the Tanglewood season, that is — Andris Nelsons conducted each of the 13 full-length concerts in the Shed, plus part of Tanglewood on Parade. Now August is here but Nelsons isn't, so a round-robin of Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductors has begun, giving him time away. Each of the first three guests had a celebrity soloist to help him (yes, all were men; so were the soloists) break the unfamiliarity barrier.
Ken-David Masur led off the podium parade Friday night with his farewell to the BSO after five years as an assistant and then associate conductor. He's moving on to become music director of the Milwaukee Symphony.
Joshua Bell was the big draw as soloist under Masur, attracting a crowd of enthusiasts and distinguishing the all-Czech program with a dazzling but musically astute performance of Dvorak's only violin concerto. In his annual Tanglewood appearance, Bell, a conductor in his own right, made the oft-played concerto suave when it wasn't fiery, and vice versa. Most of all, with his cleanly focused tone, nimble fingers, body gyrations and seemingly infinite variety of personal touches, it was excitable in an exciting way (not always the same thing).
Some of that personal detail might have been soloist's embellishments. Or it simply could have been that Bell brought out so much enriching detail not usually heard in Dvorak's extroverted score. Masur and the BSO lent support.
Masur opened with a rarity, Bohuslav Martinu's "Memorial to Lidice," never before performed at Tanglewood. The somber work, marked by brass proclamations over dark, slow-moving chords in the strings, commemorates the victims of the Nazi slaughter of the Czech village of Lidice in 1942. Its power still resonates today.
To finish, Masur and the BSO went on to Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, in G. Here, though, the personal, with a lot of stretching of rhythms and phrasing, seemed simply to break with tradition in Dvorak's sunny landscapes. Tradition nevertheless exerted a drag, resulting in playing that couldn't be called the BSO's smoothest.
How would you like to have your portrait painted in music?
Elgar did it for his friends in his "Enigma" Variations, of course. On Saturday night, Asher Fisch conducted the BSO in the American premiere of Avner Dorman's portrait of violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth in his Double Concerto, written for and about them.
It's an ingratiating 25-minute piece, light in outlook. In a program note, the Israeli-American composer said he wanted to show the relationship between the soloists themselves as well as the musical interaction between them and the orchestra. On the whole, it's a flattering portrait, if you don't mind some of the bickering that goes on between two partners.
A BSO co-commission, the piece received its world premiere in June in Adelaide, Australia. Needless to say, the Tanglewood performance was burnished to a glowing degree. On the evidence of this performance, the jittery, Stravinsky-like rhythms made the couple sound like they're happily but breathlessly running late to the supermarket.
As a sort of programmed encore with orchestra, Zukerman played Beethoven's Romance No. 1 with honeyed tone and honest sentiment befitting the modest piece.
Fisch, the principal conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, was impressive in this outing, as he has been in previous Tanglewood appearances. He and the BSO accompanied faithfully, and he opened and closed with well characterized and played performances of Schumann's "Genoveva" Overture and Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony.
Hunting horns resound in Schumann's overture to an opera — virtually unknown in the United States — about a medieval saint. It came across with clarity and operatic drama. The attractively shaped "Scottish" performance evoked the moors, storms and mists enshrined in Mendelssohn's atypically dense — the program notes aptly called it "peaty" — orchestration.
Sunday's program ventured to eastern Europe with two works steeped in melancholy: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Sibelius' Symphony No. 1. Dima Slobodeniuk, principal conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland, was the conductor and Yefim Bronfman was the soloist.
Rachmaninoff was a prodigious pianist, and if ever there was a current pianist to tame the notorious difficulties Rachmaninoff set for himself in this monster of a concerto, it is Bronfman. Yet the performance refused to take flight until the monster first-movement cadenza, where Bronfman turned on full power.
Until then, and intermittently afterward, he seemed uncharacteristically subdued, overshadowed by the orchestra. From a seat in the middle of the Shed, some of the quiet passagework was unclear or inaudible. In the finale, Bronfman fired off great volleys of sound but, impressive as they were athletically, they didn't seem to get to the heart of the music. The performance never seemed to settle down into a continuous statement.
The orchestra was the source of much of the lifelessness. Under Slobodeniuk, it sounded uncertain, sometimes simply loud. As a solo encore for the wildly cheering audience, Bronfman played Chopin's Etude in E, Opus 10, No. 3.
Things picked up considerably in the Sibelius symphony, which attained a kind of rough grandeur in Slobodeniuk's taut conception. The BSO responded to his ideas with playing that was, if not always smooth or blended, consistently full of drama and the Finnish composer's particular brand of brooding and loneliness. The ending rose to tragedy.