A rare Bernstein treat at Tanglewood

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LENOX — Hard as it is to believe, given how often some of the songs are heard, Leonard Bernstein's complete "Songfest" had been performed at Tanglewood only twice —in 1988 and 1998, both times by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra — before the centenary celebration landed it on the Boston Symphony Orchestra program Saturday night.

The absence is doubly surprising because, as Saturday's performance by the BSO and six soloists under conductor Bramwell Tovey showed, this "cycle of American poems" is one of Bernstein's most engaging works, in a league with "Chichester Psalms." It owes debts to Mahler and Copland, and Tanglewood did it no favors by dimming the house lights so low that it was impossible to follow the tiny print of the texts in the program book.

But Bernstein had a keen eye and ear for poetry, and he had something more in mind than a mere cycle of 12 diverse songs spanning four centuries of American poetry. He wanted to paint a picture of America — or at least the America he hoped for — in all its cultural, racial and, yes, sexual diversity.

The 40-minute piece is partly intimate and confessional. Whitman's "To What You Said" is frankly homosexual, and Conrad Aiken's "Music I Heard with You" recalls Bernstein's gay-life separation from his wife and grief over her death.

Other songs are boisterous and optimistic, celebrating the America of peace and friendship that Bernstein also strived for in his political activism. "To Julia de Burgos," a poem in Spanish by Julia herself, celebrates the wild independence of a Hispanic woman, and the paired "I, Too, Sing America," by Langston Hughes, and "Okay `Negroes,'" by June Jordan, declare the pride of being African-American.

Of his white masters, Hughes says: "They'll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed - / I, too, am America."

The performance under Tovey, the director of Canada's Vancouver Symphony, was potent except for the problem of text inaudibility. Of the six singers — soprano Nadine Sierra, mezzo-sopranos Isabel Leonard and Kelley O'Connor, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Elliot Madore and bass-baritone Eric Owens — only Owens was able to project the words so that they could be understood beyond the front rows of the Shed, and even he wasn't consistent. Blame partly lies with Bernstein's decision to use a Mahler-sized orchestra. A chamber orchestra might have served the settings better.

Bernstein's melting-pot diversity of musical styles — everything from Mahler's "Song of the Earth" to Broadway and jazz — came across vividly in the orchestra's playing, but unintelligible poetry is poetry lost. (The audience did not help matters by applauding between songs, breaking the mood.) From an opening fanfare that is out of Copland, and the invocation to "do something grand just this once" (Frank O'Hara), the cycle goes on to end with Poe's "Israfel" — he's a lyre-playing angel — with its hope that "a bolder note than his might swell / From my lyre within the sky."

Ah, Bernstein. Ah, America.

Not much can be said for the performance of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, ostensibly recalling a 1986 Bernstein performance, that closed the program. Through Sibelius' grumbles and shouts, his griefs and ultimate triumph, the labor of the playing registered more strongly than the music did. The BSO sounded rudderless.

The orchestra came out in hot-weather attire and still in Finnish mode Sunday for the podium debut of Dima Slobodeniouk, principal conductor of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, who led a mostly Russian program.

A man of many moves, Slobodeniouk didn't generate the specificity of gesture and color to lend full measure of barbarism to the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's "Prince Igor." Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, however, took on epic proportions as the BSO responded heroically amid the afternoon's heat.

This wartime symphony follows much the same narrative arc as the Sibelius Second, from menace to triumph. The performance built steady momentum through to the galloping, shattering finale. Obvious as the music, in Prokofiev's late style, sometimes is, it succeeds on an optimistic scale much as Shostakovich's Fifth does on a pessimistic scale.

Violinist Joshua Bell wowed the audience by dusting off Wieniawski's once popular Violin Concerto No. 2. He went through the super-romantic showpiece with his characteristic flair, finesse, tonal luster and, ultimately, sympathy with the music at hand. For an encore, he rewarded the delirious audience with an excerpt from "The Red Violin," the film that featured him as soloist and propelled him to stardom.

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