LENOX — After a rather modest opening to its 75th season, Tanglewood hosted a pair of concerts this past weekend that, in different ways, shifted the festival into high gear.
The first on Saturday night was a major event by sheer virtue of the occasion (Tanglewood celebrating its own 75th anniversary), the musical celebrities present (a long list), and the enormous audience turnout. The evening broke the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s single-event record for revenue ($1.42 million) and attracted nearly 17,000 listeners, according to a BSO spokeswoman. Former music director Seiji Ozawa, while not present, was honored with the inaugural Tanglewood Medal.
At the gala’s close, well past 11 p.m., the evening’s stars returned to the stage for a collective final bow, with John Williams, Keith Lockhart, James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Peter Serkin, and Anne-Sophie Mutter among them. A quick, casual scan across this lineup of Tanglewood royalty might have paused quizzically at the sight of a tall Latvian man wearing a dark suit and a boyish grin. It was the 33-year-old conductor Andris Nelsons, making his Tanglewood debut appearance under highly unusual circumstances. No doubt many in the Shed were still learning his name that night. Many more would know it by the end of the weekend.
Sunday’s matinee brought Nelsons back to conduct the BSO in a full program, and because he is widely speculated to be in contention for the orchestra’s top post, his forceful performances of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” and Brahms’s Second Symphony made Sunday’s concert an event in a different sort of way.
Though Nelsons is still relatively little known in this country, his star has risen quickly in Europe ever since he took over the podium of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2008, a post long held by Simon Rattle. He counts the estimable Mariss Jansons as a prime mentor, has guest conducted many of the continent’s top orchestras, and has also been notching high-level opera experience at the Met and at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth. The Guardian has dubbed him the “magician of Birmingham.”
Until this weekend, Nelsons’s sole contact with the BSO had been a single performance at Carnegie Hall, when he substituted last year for James Levine in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The chemistry at that initial meeting was palpable, and while the BSO’s managing director Mark Volpe has maintained a diplomatic silence on the subject of Nelsons’s candidacy, the orchestra’s own Twitter feed this weekend was less circumspect. A tweet on Sunday invited one and all to come “hear why Andris Nelsons is on everyone’s shortlist for next BSO Music Director.”
He’s on that list, one can surmise, because he is a genuine talent, a conductor with a gift for projecting music’s elemental forces. In Sunday’s poised performance of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” Nelsons seemed to hold the work’s lofty religious expression and its cool modernist detachment in a delicate creative tension. Tempos clicked organically, and he gathered the voices of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus into potent clouds of dissonance. The impression was less of a conductor showing off his technique than drawing out a collaborative performance that opened up a clear window on the score itself.
In Brahms’s Second Symphony, Nelsons communicated particular musical ideas but also, more simply, an unabashed youthful exuberance. In the outer movements he drew some impassioned playing from the strings but also stepped back at various points so that the musicians could step forward. Phrasing was attentive to the music’s play of shadows, its crosscurrents of melancholy. There were no doubt some rough patches but not a moment of autopilot across all four movements. For its part, the Shed audience may be prone toward standing ovations, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard anything to match the roar that went up at the heated conclusion of the Brahms.
What happens next in the BSO’s search is anyone’s guess. The orchestra professes to be in no rush to choose a new leader, and another significant debut, that of the gifted Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, is slated for the fall. Nelsons returns for his own subscription debut in January 2013. Meanwhile, his contract in Birmingham runs only until 2014, which in the orchestral world, is around the corner.
The previous night’s gala program offered a tasting menu of classical, Romantic, and pops repertoire, served up by the evening’s veteran soloists alongside the Boston Pops (Lockhart led Copland and Bernstein); the BSO (Nelsons led Ravel’s “La Valse”); the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (Stefan Asbury led movements of a Haydn Concerto with Ax); and, eventually, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which sat on stage all night before finally joining Serkin and the BSO in the closing rendition of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” under David Zinman.
A film called “Music Under the Moon” offered a brisk stroll through festival history, including archival footage. Taylor sang “Over the Rainbow,” “Shall We Dance?” and “Ol’ Man River.” Williams presented the Tanglewood Medal, and Ma read a grateful statement from Ozawa, stating that “the world needs places like Tanglewood that nourish the soul.” The night as a whole was taped for national broadcast on Aug. 10 as part of the PBS series “Great Performances.”