LENOX — At a guess, once its new chapter begins this fall, no one at the Boston Symphony Orchestra will miss the task of choreographing opening night programs without a music director in place. Over the course of recent years, the BSO has tried opening seasons in just about every imaginable style: with programs of froth and programs of substance, with a celebrity soloist and with no soloist, with a high-profile guest conductor and with no conductor at all.
This time, for Saturday night’s season-opener at Tanglewood, the BSO tapped two different conductors, though in truth the evening, a tasting menu of musical Americana, was clearly conceived as a vehicle for its celebrity soloist, the soprano Renée Fleming. On the podium William Eddins and Rob Fisher divided the conducting duties, the former presiding over concert music by Schwantner, Copland, Barber, and John Adams, and the latter efficiently taking up a Pops-style second half with selections from such Broadway classics as “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific,” and “The King and I.”
Fleming, whose participation was weighted toward the second half, did what she was invited to do, looking and sounding relaxed in this luxuriously voiced sashay through the great American songbook. She bantered with the crowd, made jokes about having changed dresses, sang most of the selections with a microphone, and invited the audience packed into the Koussevitzky Music Shed to sing along with her, which it enthusiastically did for her first encore, “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But overall the evening was an odd amalgamation of two different kinds of programs, and the cumulative impact was so light as to almost drift away on the Lenox breeze. The night ended — as if obeying some unwritten law — with Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
The evening’s most substantive offering was “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Barber’s iconic setting of James Agee’s introduction to his autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family.” The music amplifies Agee’s powerful distillation of a 6-year-old boy’s view of the world, and of the ecstasy he still finds hidden in moments of everyday life. In one section, on a languid summer night, the boy is lying next to his family on quilts in his backyard, and Agee makes clear that, for his boyhood self, it is a moment of perfect and oceanic fullness, a child’s Eden. The text’s poignance — and that of Barber’s music — comes from the way such scenes of innocence are shadowed by an adult knowledge of their radical fragility, and by the anticipation of future loss. Barber’s score, written after World War II, likewise lifts the trope of lost innocence onto a national scale. A boy’s childhood and a country’s mythologized past here speak as one.
In Saturday’s performance of the Barber, Fleming’s voice shone with its signature warmth and opalescence, though she also struggled at times to make herself heard, and to clearly project the nuances of Agee’s text, above the orchestra.
Elsewhere on the first half, Eddins led solid if circumscribed accounts of Schwantner’s “Freeflight” and Adams’s “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” The music of Copland could hardly be left out of this sampler, though its inclusion in just a single movement — “Night Thoughts” from “Music for a Great City” — was an all-too-modest serving. It will be interesting to see how opening nights are handled in the upcoming Andris Nelsons era. The ritual at the moment is ripe for reinvention.
On Sunday afternoon, Israeli conductor Asher Fisch was on the podium with a program of works by Brahms, Liszt, and Wagner. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, with his gentle touch and massive wingspan, did not stint on power but nonetheless emphasized the lyrical impetus running through Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Special applause went to principal cellist Jules Eskin, whose honeyed solo in the Andante movement capped his first return to playing with the BSO after an extended medical leave that began in January.
After intermission Fisch welded Liszt’s somewhat sprawling symphonic poem “Les Préludes” into a taut and persuasive statement before concluding with excerpts from Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Fisch has made Wagner one of his specialties, and this was palpable in the way he shaped orchestral textures and maintained the tension of musical lines across long distances. For its part, the BSO played with evident commitment, brasses aglow and strings digging in deeply. The orchestra’s summer season continues next weekend with a visit from Nelsons, his first since being named as the next music director.