Review: BSO off to a soggy start

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LENOX — You say you hate modern music? So did Mahler as he struggled with revisions to his Fifth Symphony.

"Heavens," he wrote of that symphony, "what is the public to make of this chaos in which worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment?" He wished he had a box at the Cologne theater where the Fifth was being premiered so he could look down and scorn "all modern music!"

So, he went on to compose four more symphonies and "The Song of the Earth."

Mahler's often dense, often yearning, sometimes apocalyptic symphonies, culminating the romantic era, opened gates to 20th-century music. Friday night, the Fifth Symphony helped to open Tanglewood's gates as the Boston Symphony Orchestra launched its summer season.

'Twas a steamy night in the country, which did not discourage a sea of picnickers on the lawn. 'Twas not, however, weather that was kind to musical instruments or players. Under music director Andris Nelsons, the flubs and disagreements about pitch and unity added a gnarled roughness to a gnarly symphony that, over a span of nearly 80 minutes, works its way from a funeral march to a hard-earned shout of triumph at the end.

Under better conditions, Nelsons' flexible phrasing would have squeezed more meaning from the five movements. As it was, Mahler's stark contrasts between solemnity and savagery, grotesquerie and nostalgia, emerged in unruly outline.

The lengthy scherzo, the work's fulcrum, became a misshapen waltz, sometimes ominous, sometimes ghostly. The famous adagietto was spun out at a loving tempo that barely escaped stasis. The trajectory climaxed in a dance of joy in the finale but, perhaps inevitably given the conditions, the individual movements stood alone more than forming a continuous arc.

Emanuel Ax opened the program as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22, K.482 — also an uneven performance, in which even a reduced orchestra seemed to shout down the soft-spoken solo part.

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Apparently because of the heat, Ax seemed uncharacteristically unsettled, especially at the beginning. Even though he loosened up as he went along, delivering some pearly passages amid others that seemed rattled off, the performance as a whole felt calculated rather than spontaneous.

As if Mahler had laid a curse on modern music, Saturday night's program featured Andre Previn's romanticism-soaked Violin Concerto "Anne-Sophie" as a memorial to the composer-conductor, who died in February at 89.

Anne-Sophie, of course, is Anne-Sophie Mutter, Previn's ex-wife, for whom he wrote the concerto. It's a virtual love letter to her, as she acknowledges in a program note describing him as "the darling of the gods" who is sure to be "busy right now playing a jam session with Wolfgang Amadeus and Oscar." (Oscar Peterson, right?)

Given that sendoff, who else would be the soloist? And indeed, the German spellbinder played the 45-minute piece with suavity and lustrous tone.

Previn, who had a BSO association dating back to 1977, composed the concerto on a BSO commission. He conducted the BSO in the world premiere in 2002, with Mutter as soloist. The Tanglewood performance was planned in a 90th-birthday celebration of him, but death intervened.

"Anne-Sophie" is an old-fashioned virtuoso concerto. Its soaring, swelling melodies and lush orchestration are spiked with just enough dissonance, percussion and jumpy rhythms (occasionally suggesting Prokofiev's violin concertos) to lend the piece a 21st-century touch. It ends on a disappearing high note on the violin, playing alone.

As an encore with orchestra, Mutter played the "Song" from Previn's "Tango, Song and Dance."

With the weather improving despite rain showers, the BSO was back in form under Nelsons' assured direction, providing glowing textures for the Previn concerto and opening and closing the program with Joan Tower's "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman" No. 1 (a wink at Aaron Copland's "Common Man" fanfare here) and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony. All of it added up to an evening of Americana, with Dvorak an honored guest.                                                                                                                                                                

The "New World" performance was a winner. The warhorse symphony had the kind of sweep the Mahler performance could only aspire to. The largo was lovingly shaped, the finale a resounding affirmation of all that had gone before.


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