At Tanglewood, themes, variations and a gift from John Williams

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LENOX — Having passed the milestone of 83, John Williams knows a big anniversary when he sees one.

"Just Down West Street on the left" is the many-prize-winning film composer's birthday present to the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra on its 75th. The five-minute sparkler, premiered Sunday night in the student orchestra's opening concert of the anniversary season, is also a love song to his cherished Tanglewood. (The title contains driving instructions, in case you need them.)

"Just Down West Street" opens with fanfares and quickly becomes a mini-concerto for orchestra, giving everybody a chance to join in the bustle and brilliance. Faculty conductor Stefan Asbury presided with the sure hand that, every year, whips this assemblage into shape.

In a tradition that goes back all 75 years, two student conductors — both women this year — shared the podium with the senior conductor. Asbury had the idea of unifying the program with three principal works in theme and variations form.

Ruth Reinhardt of Germany took Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," and Marzena Diakun of Poland took Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Asbury himself conducted Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 as the finale.

Amazingly for an ensemble less than a week old, the playing was of dazzling professional quality. But then, that's not so amazing because it happens every year, with the orchestra going on to even bigger things.

The Britten piece had a bit of luxury casting: choreographer Mark Morris as the narrator in the introductions to the various choirs and instruments. Seated in an easy chair in a loge just off the stage, he sounded a bit like a schoolmaster, which is not such a bad thing here.

This is music for children, yes, but it's a lot more as Britten ingeniously rings changes on a tune by his great English predecessor Purcell. The playing was vivid in its differentiations of color and character — perhaps nowhere more so than in the modest lilt of the clarinets. The Brahms performance, by contrast, was dark-hued and sober.

The variations idea is subtler in the Sibelius Fifth, a work of rumbles, surges and lonely calls. Asbury drew taut playing from the orchestra, looking deep into meanings while avoiding mystical murk. The triumph, when it finally came, was hard won and not quite certain, as it should be. This was a symphony of wanderings by a lost soul.

And, with the season just beginning, there's more to look forward to.


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