LENOX – A festive mood hovered over the grounds this opening weekend as Tanglewood toasts its own 75th anniversary. There are the 7-foot-tall fiberglass sculptures bringing good cheer to particularly green lawns. There is a new commemorative poster and an anniversary stamp. And many musical faces of the festival were on display this weekend, from the BSO to the Pops, to the youthful energies of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.
Unfortunately what the BSO does not have to help lead its celebrations, or focus them around a coherent artistic vision, is a music director. That absence was keenly felt on Saturday night at the BSO’s second concert of the season. (Friday’s opening night program was previously reviewed.) Last summer, even with music director James Levine fully withdrawn, you could at least feel his guiding hand behind the artistic planning: Saturday night of opening weekend was devoted to Berlioz’s monumental Requiem, led in Levine’s absence by the estimable Charles Dutoit.
This summer in the same prominent Saturday night spot was Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, making his BSO debut with a rather underwhelming collection of standard repertoire alongside the premiere of bassist Edgar Meyer’s extremely thin new Double Concerto for violin and bass. All Tanglewood summers have their programming peaks and dips, but really, so soon? Surely something more ambitious should have been dreamed up for this occasion.
The BSO after all has commissioned several new works for the anniversary festivities, but Meyer’s was not among them. A prominent bassist who has collaborated with everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Béla Fleck, Meyer wrote his new Double Concerto to perform with violinist Joshua Bell, who was on hand Saturday for the premiere. The two go way back to their school days at Indiana University, and share an interest in American roots music of various stripes. One hoped the new piece might have the feel of a spirited jam inside an inventive orchestral frame, but this extremely modest three-movement score is mostly folk-flavored noodling and detached riffs for Bell without much force of personality. Meyer’s writing for his own instrument was virtuosic but his hyper-restrained delivery on Saturday night cast him in the role of distanced accompanist more than fellow concerto copilot. What’s more, the piece’s orchestration is generally so sparse as to feel, simply put, like a waste of the BSO. Even the crowd this piece was apparently programmed to please seemed not sure what to make of it.
Boston Symphony OrchestraTanglewood Music Center Orchestraand
Before the new concerto, Bell whizzed through “Tzigane,” Ravel’s gypsy-inspired showpiece, and Stern led Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It’s hard to fairly assess a conductor whose debut is thrown into the full whirl of a Tanglewood schedule. Stern’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony thundered where necessary but rarely built with the long-distance phrasing, dynamic subtlety, and sharp rhythmic profile necessary for a deeper impact. The program book informed you that the Tchaikovsky Fourth was performed on Koussevitzky’s second Tanglewood concert — one of several works from that initial summer of 1937 being reprised for the anniversary — yet with a warhorse score that might easily show up anyway on any given season, the conceit wears a little thin.
Happier news awaited on Sunday night at Ozawa Hall, where Gunther Schuller led the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the premiere of his own new work, “Dreamscape.” The title is not metaphorical — as Schuller himself explained to the audience with an air of wonderment, the piece in fact came to him fully formed in a dream, complete with an array of complex rhythmic ideas he claims would never have occurred to him during his waking hours.
Regardless of its sources, “Dreamscape” is a richly imagined, witty, and rewarding new orchestral work. An ebullient opening movement marked “Scherzo umoristico e curioso” has a playful at times almost slapstick feel, with instrumental jokes and even shouts erupting from the orchestra. A “Nocturne” follows, brief, ruminative and beautiful, capped by a finale marked “Birth-Evolution-Culmination,” in which music of great density and complexity seems fired by primal forces. With so many ideas crammed into a 10-minute score, it’s the kind of piece that instantly makes you want to hear it a second time (and fortunately, it will be repeated at this summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music).
Sunday’s performance was energetic and sharply drawn, as was the rest of the program of works by Dvorak, Respighi, and Prokofiev led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya and TMC conducting fellows Alexandre Bloch and Vlad Agachi. Having come together only days ago, this orchestra of young musicians nearing the end of their formal training already sounded fully committed and game for whatever an eventful summer will be throwing its way.