Tanglewood: Paging Dr. Fruhbeck

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LENOX -- Like a good physician, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos banishes ailments when he returns to the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium.

Whether the preceding concerts have been for better or worse (and there has been a fair amount of worse this summer), he and the orchestra sound strong, healthy and happy together.

The German-Spanish conductor began the Tanglewood weekend on Friday night in a jovial mood, swinging from the jokes of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony to the schmaltzes and waltzes of Strauss' "Rosenkavalier" Suite.

Between the two tastes of Vienna came a potent debut. The 24-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang gave a pristine glimpse into Rachmaninoff's romantic Russian soul as the soloist in his "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

This virtuoso work -- really a series of tightly linked variations rather than a fantasy -- is vulnerable to slasher attacks at the keyboard. Wang, who looks too slight to tame a glowering Steinway grand before thousands of people, went in a gentler direction.

Though her tone was on the small side, she had the hands for the show-off stuff. But the performance was notable for something much better: dazzling flurries of soft notes, a play of colors, and threads of melancholy, without which Rachmaninoff is not Rachmaninoff. A fine lyrical sense made the juicy theme of the 18th variation truly rhapsodic.

The BSO accompaniment caught the fever from her. Now, what else can this young wonder do?

Frühbeck had a grand time with the Beethoven and Strauss pieces.

Surprise after surprise, each with a smile, tumbled out of the Eighth Symphony. (Who had ever brought out those double-bass melodies before?)

And if Strauss' Sacher torte was a little heavy on the cream -- well, that's Vienna. The BSO gobbled it up.

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There was more Rachmaninoff Saturday night -- the Second Symphony, conducted by BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse in his Tanglewood debut.

The young Newhouse made his Symphony Hall debut with the BSO in the classic assistant-conductor manner. The music director canceled at the last minute.

Scary? Of course. James Levine, who had hired him, bowed out last February two hours before beginning a run of Mahler Ninths. As standby conductor, Newhouse went on for all four performances. The cancellation ultimately led to Levine's resignation.

Newhouse's Tanglewood start was a little more relaxed, yet conducting Rachmaninoff's baggy symphony on Tanglewood's rehearsal schedule will put even veteran conductors to the test. The symphony is long, and you don't want to make it feel long.

It showed its length here. Newhouse demonstrated sympathy with Rachmaninoff's yearnings but the performance was clearly a work in progress for him. Moment by moment, things went along passably. The missing pieces were a long line to tie the many incidents together, and more flexibility in the phrasing.

Earlier, Newhouse made the orchestra sound a lot better than the soloist in Sarah Chang's self-indulgent musical and stage antics in her garish take on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. (Haphazard intonation at no extra cost.) What could this usually fine violinist have been thinking?

The program opened with American composer Pierre Jalbert's "Music of air and fire," which does just what its title promises, going from shimmer to scorch.

In a BSO debut Sunday afternoon, French conductor Lionel Bringuier led strongly characterized performances of Smetana's "The Moldau" and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Bruinguier, the young associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, came with definite ideas about the music. Sometimes they were effective, as in the country dance in "Moldau." At other times, they were more excitable than excited. Tchaikovsky's climaxes were brass-heavy and driven hard, verging on bombast.

As with Newhouse, the difference between a young man relatively new to the orchestra and a well-known senior figure like Frühbeck told in the playing. On both Saturday and Sunday, it was dutiful and attentive rather than molded to a conception.

Sunday's big attraction was Emanuel Ax as the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22. His playing demonstrated mastery so confident of its powers and the music's that it didn't have to prove anything -- just let Mozart flow in cascading glories. Deep mysteries were enfolded in the ruminations and dialogs with the winds in the andante.


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