TMC Orchestra rises to occasion in season-opening concert at Ozawa Hall

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LENOX — For a memorable account of Richard Strauss's sprawling, self-referential, near-narcissistic "Ein Heldenleben" (A Hero's Life), nothing less than an heroic performance will do.

And that's just what well over 100 young musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra delivered at their season opener Monday night before a near-capacity crowd at Ozawa Hall. With BSO music director Andris Nelsons leading massive forces, as required for the composer's autobiographical odyssey, the six-chapter tone poem succeeded in avoiding the bombast typical of many performances.

No surprise, given Nelsons' mastery of long-term orchestral works that benefit from his tightly controlled and disciplined approach that not only conveys drama but also lyricism and genuine sentiment. But never to be taken for granted is the superb musicianship of the TMC orchestra players, who came together for the first time only three weeks ago.

These young professionals and advanced students filled a nearly-overflowing stage (nearly a dozen double basses, by my rough count, a platoon of brass, including three off-stage trumpets, a euphonium (tenor tuba) and just about every percussion instrument imaginable.

Avoiding grandiloquence, Nelsons opted for an eloquent statement of the hero's opening leitmotif (recurrent theme), a nod to Wagnerian influence, and encouraged players to exploit the humorous treatment Strauss as hero aimed at his adversaries, specifically music critics as depicted by two growling tubas, eventually vanquished by a militaristic brass fanfare.

In "The Hero's Works of Peace" section, Strauss quotes themes from five previous tone poems, notably the blazing horn outburst from "Don Juan," so it's not surprising that the self-congratulatory composer once told a writer that he found himself "no less interesting than Napoleon."

Skirting potential cacophony during the hero's battlefield sequence (cue the offstage trumpets and the snares, cymbals and tam-tam), Nelsons managed to make the composer's self-portrait — especially his affectionate tribute to his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna — sound (well, almost) like great music.

That extended first-violin solo, a quasi-concerto depicting Pauline's amorous felicities and less appealing foibles, requires maximum virtuosity and deep feeling. TMC Fellow Vincent Meklis earned the well-deserved, prolonged ovation, encouraged by Nelsons, after the 45-minute orchestral rhapsody faded away on a note of serenity and fulfillment.

During the first half, the TMC's two conducting Fellows made auspicious local debuts. Taiwan native Yu An Chang, named a BSO assistant conductor for the 2018-19 season, led Leonard Bernstein's five-minute "Opening Prayer" (a-k-a "Benediction") for baritone and orchestra, his final orchestral composition completed just in time for the 1986 gala concert marking the end of Carnegie Hall's renovation.

TMC singer Thomas West, stationed in the balcony high above the stage, was suitably stentorian and reverential, displaying a remarkably wide vocal range.

Chang also presided over a raucous, free-wheeling "Carnival Overture" by Dvorak.

In a sensitive account of the rarely-performed opening movement, "The High Castle," from Smetana's nationalistic masterwork "My Country," Gemma New, already embarked on an international career, displayed flair, crisp podium technique and a keen grasp of the score's Czech spirit, first conveyed during an extended solo performed brilliantly by TMC harpists Alix Raspe and Lauren Hayes.

The evening was a triumph for this fledgling orchestra that a blindfolded listener easily could mistake for a major, established American band.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551

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