Music Review

Tanglewood opens with Tchaikovsky in veteran hands

Violinist Joshua Bell performs with the BSO under the direction of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on Friday at Tanglewood.
Violinist Joshua Bell performs with the BSO under the direction of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on Friday at Tanglewood.

LENOX — The Boston Symphony Orchestra has named its next leader, but it still faces over a year before that conductor, Andris Nelsons, officially takes up his post. The continued absence of a music director makes itself felt in numerous ways but rarely more palpably than at ceremonial events like Friday night’s season-opening performance at Tanglewood.

No doubt seeking to project continuity in a time of transition, the orchestra once again tapped the Spanish maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, perhaps its most frequently returning guest conductor. And leaving nothing to chance, the BSO also signed up violinist Joshua Bell, returning for his 25th consecutive summer, as soloist. The program, too, was a kind of classical music comfort food, with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto paired with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

It was a sweltering night, and the the packed rows of the Koussevitzky Music Shed fluttered with program books repurposed as fans. Fortunately Bell himself proved immune to the kind of lethargy this sort of heat can produce. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a piece he slips into like an old and well-worn coat, but he still dispatched it with a vigor and debonair athleticism that electrified the crowd, even if the BSO string-playing under Frühbeck de Burgos at times lacked the definition and bite that would have made this a fully unified performance. Interpretively speaking, Bell’s playing was at its most distinctive in the first-movement cadenza, to which he brought a flexible pacing and exploratory sensibility that helped the well-trod runs and leaps feel like more than just a reboot of soloistic fireworks past.


Frühbeck de Burgos, as veteran as maestros come, led portions of each work from a swivel chair, but still managed to project his trademark martial bearing, like a general presiding over restive troops. On Friday night, the Tchaikovsky Fifth was big and broad but also, as if succumbing to the heat, intermittently thick in texture, loose in rhythm, and short on carefully stitched details.

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But Saturday night’s expansive performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, also led by Frühbeck de Burgos, fared better, and was distinguished by some stellar brass playing, from the opening fanfare to Thomas Rolfs’s bewitching posthorn solo, delivered on the instrument for which it was actually written. Trombonist Toby Oft and violinist Elita Kang, sitting as concertmaster, both reprised the impressive solo playing heard earlier this season in performances of this work at Symphony Hall.

Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter also returned as vocal soloist. Her voice has few of the earthy colorings usually associated with Mahler’s transcendent fourth-movement setting of Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” but she nonetheless delivered this solo with tonal focus and a rapt expressive beauty. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the PALS Children’s Chorus both sang well, and were this time diligently seated after the start of Mahler’s vast instrumental finale. Other interpreters find in this oceanic slow movement a grandeur more glowing, integrated, and charged than what was heard here on Saturday night, but Frübeck de Burgos’s reading had command and confidence in its favor and the performance as a whole won a robust ovation.

More generally, Tanglewood caters to a wider variety of musical tastes than does the orchestra’s Symphony Hall subscription season. So it’s worth noting that as the populist programming marches ahead this summer in the Shed, the more diverse musical life centered in nearby Ozawa Hall heats up this week with a concert performance of John Harbison’s opera “The Great Gatsby,” and recitals next week by the Borodin String Quartet and the baritone Bryn Terfel. Britten’s “Curlew River,” in a new staging by Mark Morris, beckons from the distant haze of late July. And fans of contemporary music will not to want to miss the US premiere of George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin,” scheduled for Aug. 12 at the Festival of Contemporary Music.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at