LENOX — The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season came full circle on Sunday afternoon, closing in the spirit in which it began: with Beethoven, and the memory of Serge Koussevitzky.
Opening night had featured a re-creation of Koussevitzky’s own first program from the inaugural concert on Tanglewood grounds in 1937. But it was Sunday’s matinee that proved the more custom-tailored and ultimately fitting tribute to his legacy, with the premiere of John Harbison’s new work for chorus and orchestra, “Koussevitzky Said:,” a piece that sets the maestro’s own words to music.
In his day, the BSO’s towering music director exuded optimism about the musical future of his adoptive home, and played a historic role in supporting the work of American composers, in both words and deed. Any composer in 2012 wishing to set some of Koussevitzky’s grander statements about the importance of music would have an abundance of choices, and Harbison started down that very path before stopping short. As he explained in a program note, he knew his work was to be paired with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and realized that Schiller’s poetry would more than suffice in the department of formal uplift.
So as texts for his brief choral scherzo Harbison instead chose from the informal literature of Koussevitzky-isms, casual phrases attributed to him, often quoted by BSO musicians with the original creative syntax passed down through the years. The piece for instance opens with a richly contrapuntal setting of Koussevitzky’s famous pronouncement: “The next Beethoven will from Colorado come.” Later the chorus sings “I will keep playing this music — until you hear it”; “I am an American, but I still love Russia”; and finally, “Let's do it together for our own satisfaction.”
Harbison’s score seemed to be pitched just right for the occasion: light yet serious, crafted with the kind of detail (subtle references, nods to Beethoven’s Ninth) that rewards close listening. It was energetically performed on Sunday afternoon, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus singing under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The piece, only six minutes in duration, passes by in the blink of an eye. The most Koussevitzkian gesture would have been to repeat it on the spot.
Instead came the annual season-closing performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Frühbeck de Burgos once again looked quite frail and conducted from a stool. (Through his management, the conductor later issued a statement that he had recently undergone “a resection of the digestive tract” and had also been experiencing lower back pain.)
Despite his more limited range of movement, he drew out forceful and organic playing from the orchestra in the first three movements of the Beethoven, and all parties seem to rally for the finale, with the chorus singing zestfully and delivering the kind of roaring climaxes that turn the Ninth into a visceral experience. The quartet of vocal soloists — Leah Crocetto, Meredith Arwady, Frank Lopardo, and John Relyea — sang well, and with more coherent ensemble phrasing than has been heard in plenty of late-Augusts past.
On Saturday night the spotlight dipped south, with Frühbeck de Burgos leading an evening of the kind of Spanish repertoire he executes with an authority few can match. The first half featured a bewitchingly colorful five movements from Albeniz's “Suite Espanola,” orchestrated from the piano original by the conductor himself, followed by a full concert performance of Falla’s opera “La Vida Breve,” led from memory.
Completed in 1905, Falla’s work tells the abbreviated story of a poor gypsy woman, Salud, impatiently awaiting the return of her wealthy lover Paco, who declares his love and then summarily betrays her. Falla’s score suggests a folk-inflected verismo with an expanded harmonic palette. The best moments of Saturday’s performance carried a pointed intensity that made you almost forget about the two-dimensional plot. Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Salud sang with abundant quantities of rich tone and dramatic focus to match. Next to her, Vicente Ombuena seemed underpowered but was otherwise a solid Paco. Christina Faus and Catia Moreso also sang ably in supporting roles. Some of the night’s biggest cheers went to the dancer Nuria Pomares
Rojas, responsible for the rare sight of elegant Flamenco dancing in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.
On Friday night, Keith Lockhart led the Boston Pops in a Gershwin tribute that turned out rather thin. Pianist Ilya Yakushev played the “Rhapsody in Blue,” though he and Lockhart found limited rapport. Maureen McGovern and Brian Stokes Mitchell were the well-received guest artists, yet beyond the chestnuts, neither one really elevated the evening artistically. With Pops programs in their current state, it seems unrealistic to expect that a night like this might have more meaningfully explored Gershwin's fascinating American journey. Yet I have no doubt the large audience present would have appreciated the kind of program that not only met where they are, but also led them somewhere new.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.