LENOX — Each weekend at Tanglewood brings not only its own set of concerts, but also its own set of story lines.
Chief among them this weekend was the conclusion of a two-week visit from Andris Nelsons, his final set of concerts with the BSO before he officially takes the reins of the orchestra this fall as its next music director.
And once again, the dominant sentiment among BSO musicians and concert-goers in the Shed appeared to be relief. It has been an amazingly long time — five years, to be precise — since the BSO had its own music director present on the grounds of Tanglewood. Nelsons’s two programs over the weekend, mixing crowd-pleasing staples with accessible new music, were cheered to the rafters. His star in Europe, meanwhile, remains high, and the European press visiting Tanglewood apparently can’t resist speculating about his career future (“Boston, Berlin — or both?” began a Deutsche Welle story last week).
On the podium this weekend, Nelsons projected his typical immersive engagement in the music at hand, though this time in a wider range of scores. On Saturday night he attended with the same abundant care to both the famous melodies of Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” and to the more complexly weighted expressivity of Brahms’s Third Symphony, which opened the program. As it turned out, this performance of the Third gestured in its organic shaping toward the one Nelsons led last fall in Symphony Hall, though it ultimately fell short of that earlier performance’s impact, lacking something of its tonal warmth and precision or characterization.
On Sunday afternoon, Nelsons was joined by Joshua Bell, a perennial Shed favorite, making his yearly appearance with a staple of the Romantic violin repertoire. This time it was Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole,” the French composer’s tribute to an imagined Spain, premiered just five years before Tchaikovsky’s orchestral homage to Italy. Bell served up this sun-drenched work, a violin concerto in all but name, with playing of suave technique and unstinting flamboyance.
The afternoon closed with Nelsons leading the BSO in a robust, driving and intermittently personalized account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. If the Fifth is an overplayed work or a difficult score through which to coax freshly motivated playing from an orchestra, nobody seems to have told Nelsons. The BSO sounded keenly responsive and energized, and the conductor’s theatrical sensibilities were most notably on display in the mystery and hushed intensity he brought to the veiled music of the transitional passage into the work’s blazing finale.
The remaining works on Nelsons’s two programs were new music, the area in which the incoming music director’s approach has so far remained the least defined. Until this weekend, during his various guest visits, Nelsons had in fact not led the BSO in a single note of music by a living composer.
Saturday’s offering was Rolf Martinsson’s Trumpet Concerto No. 1, titled “Bridge,” a modest work written for Nelsons’s close musical friend, the trumpet player Hakan Hardenberger. The piece itself, despite some exotic percussion effects, was more memorable as a vehicle for the soloist’s formidable virtuosity than for the imaginative wealth of the writing. Sunday’s program opened with Christopher Rouse’s “Rapture,” an impeccably crafted, stylistically innoucous curtain-raiser in which avowedly consonant orchestral textures gather and build toward a brightly hued climax.
Nelsons led both works with musicality and assurance, but as a whole, the weekend offered precious little new information about how the orchestra’s contemporary music profile will evolve under his leadership. In an ideal scenario, Nelsons might wed continuity with evolution in this area. He could, in other words, forge meaningful relationships with Boston’s own composers, while at the same time connecting BSO audiences with significant developments in European music that rarely found a place in James Levine’s advocacy, focused as it was on American high-modernists. Contemporary music may or may not be high on Nelsons’s personal agenda, but he will be in a strong position, if he so chooses, to leverage his star power and charisma to not only reaffirm the public’s musical taste, but also lead it somewhere new. For its part, the BSO could do a lot to help him succeed in this area. It’s worth saying once more: There has never been a better time for the organization to finally appoint a composer-in-residence.
Meanwhile, a second story line this summer — at Tanglewood and beyond — has been the rapidly thinning ranks of the venerable old guard of conductors. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a stalwart figure at Tanglewood in recent years, passed away last month; Lorin Maazel died this month; Kurt Masur, another frequent visitor to Tanglewood, has been plagued by health issues and did not appear on this summer’s schedule. And Christoph von Dohnanyi, the distinguished German conductor, canceled his festival appearances this year due to serious illness in his family. Dohnanyi will hopefully be back next season at Symphony Hall, but overall, the forced reckoning with the mortality of this generation of larger-than-life maestros has registered here at Tanglewood as a kind of melancholy second theme.
On Friday, the British conductor Edward Gardner made his BSO debut, stepping in for Dohnanyi and inheriting a program that included Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Gardner, who directs the English National Opera, led from the podium with a succinct intensity of gesture, drawing characterful if at times slightly ragged accounts of the Strauss and Beethoven. In between the two came a set of Copland’s “Old American Songs,” delivered with mastery and a burnished tone by baritone Thomas Hampson, even if his theatrical delivery of this music varied from song to song in its persuasiveness.
The last of the weekend’s story lines was Tanglewood’s annual tale-of-two-festivals moment. The programming in Ozawa Hall always has its own rhythm, but the two sides of campus rarely feel as far apart as during the yearly Festival of Contemporary Music, which ran all weekend long and concluded Monday. (It will be reviewed separately.) I couldn’t help but think back to Levine’s dream that the BSO itself should bridge the gulf by playing a full concert on each year’s FCM. It happened only once on his watch. Maybe, under Nelsons’s, it could happen again.