Beethoven's Ninth, as if new

LENOX — Andris Nelsons preceded the Boston Symphony Orchestra's season-ending Beethoven Ninth on Sunday with a heartfelt talk from the stage, expressing his love of Tanglewood and his hope that the Ninth's message of universal joy and brotherhood would radiate out from Tanglewood to the entire world.

On the brilliant Sunday afternoon, the large audience — probably in the neighborhood of 10,000 — erupted in a prolonged roar of agreement. It was a moment of pure inspiration. This is what the Ninth and Tanglewood are about when all goes well: great music with great aspirations for a better world.                                                            

You'd think there's nothing new to be said in or about the Ninth; it's about as overworked as any symphony in the repertoire. You'd be wrong. Nelsons followed his talk with an astonishing performance. The BSO music director just gets better and better, taking the BSO with him.

The impact wasn't just from the clarity of articulation and detail that Nelsons found in the dovetailing orchestral and vocal parts. You heard that effect right away in the first movement in the strings' crisp, nuanced attention to each note and phrase. You heard it even more forcefully in the startling vividness of fourth movement's opening fanfare and buildup to the "Ode to Joy" theme.

But the overall effect came from a sustained conception of the piece, event leading inexorably to event, beginning with the weighty statements of first and second movements. The serene adagio culminated in the 133-voice Tanglewood Festival Chorus' explosive embrace of all humanity. It was as if the BSO and singers were making the music new, when in actuality they perform it year after year on the final day. Nor did any of this seem logically plotted out; instead, it seemed to well up from within the music as if of its own accord.

A fine quartet of soloists lent further distinction to the performance.

As in the past, bass-baritone John Relyea rang powerfully out in the opening summons to joy and brotherhood. Tenor Russell Thomas sounded the hero's note in the march section, although he was announced the night before as suffering from a throat infection. The voices of soprano Katie Van Kooten and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford rose thrillingly above the tumult of all else in their high-lying parts. James Burton, completing his first season as the chorus' conductor, prepared the mighty ensemble to deliver all that Nelsons asked of it.

Nothing quite goes with the Ninth on a program, but the BSO keeps trying. This Sunday, it was Ives' brief, atmospheric "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," recalling his honeymoon spent in the Berkshires. The piece didn't really fit, but it was a neighborly gesture, sumptuously played.

At an opposite pole, Saturday night's concert, a revue of opera favorites, also led by Nelsons, could be called a night at the popera. 'Twas a chilly night, with temperatures dipping below 50 by the end of the affair, but the music went only part way toward warming body and soul. The evening was something of a hodgepodge, actually.

The glue holding the thing together was the starry duo of Kristine Opolais and Bryn Terfel as soloists, first battling it out as Tosca and Scarpia, later crooning and swooning as Bess and Porgy. In a single encore, they turned themselves into Giovanni and Zerlina in a hammed-up, kissy-faced version of L ci darem la mano" from Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Ah, but the real-life husband got the last word and kiss. After a mock scuffle with Terfel at the podium, the conductor walked happily off the stage with his wife. Cue wild cheering. Cue good night.

If only the whole sketchily staged evening had come together as happily. All the elements were in place for a powerful Act II of "Tosca" in the first half: A smooth, almost blas Scarpia casually sipping Spanish wine at his writing table. A spitfire Tosca finally yielding to his attempted seduction, only to kill the villain with his own knife. Surges of ominous sound emanating from the BSO. In the lesser roles, Russell Thomas, Matthew DiBattista and Douglas Williams sang effectively as the doomed lover Cavaradossi and Scarpia's henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone, though Thomas was rough with his throat infection.

But the whole never generated the irresistible momentum of Nelsons' partially staged "Das Rheingold" earlier in the season. While Terfel was the more sinister for being so laid-back and oily as the treacherous police chief, Opolais sang with passion aplenty yet without the warmth of tone proper to the great diva.

The staging did not help, as had the more elaborate stage business in "Rheingold." Opolais sang a restrained "Visssi d'arte" to a wall. Scarpia fell dead with a satisfying thud on the stage floor. But after speeding him to a deserved end, Tosca took her cape and sauntered offstage without even simulating planting a crucifix and candles on the corpse. The effect was lost.                                                                                                                                       

So, Tanglewood got an inkling of the star Tosca and conductor the Met had lost for its New Year's Eve "Tosca" when Opolais, followed by Nelsons, exited from the new production.                                                                 

The rest of the Tanglewood program offered snippets from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," Dvorak's "Rusalka" and Gershwin's "Porgy," with the Festival Chorus providing backup. Terfel sang the aging Hans Sachs' "Flieder" (lilac) monologue with touching wisdom and dignity as he contemplated the rise of the young Walther as a rival, but a souped-up medley of "Porgy" tunes came across as white folks playing at being black folks. Yuck.                    

But the takeaway message remained Nelsons' and Beethoven's: May a troubled world find brotherhood and joy.


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