LENOX — Strolling across the Tanglewood lawn on Sunday afternoon felt a bit like being inside a marketing brochure, which is to say, weekends of sun-splashed musical populism don’t get much more photogenic than this one. It was the perfect Tanglewood trifecta: gorgeous weather, an all-Tchaikovsky program, and Yo-Yo Ma. So many people came out — more than 14,200 according to the BSO — that roads and parking lots were jammed, delaying ticket-holders, musicians, and eventually the start time of the concert, which was pushed back by 25 minutes. No one seemed to mind.
From the podium, conductor David Zinman ultimately called the afternoon to order with a buoyant, festive account of the Polonaise from “Eugene Onegin.” Ma then emerged from the wings, making his way to his seat while warmly greeting individual orchestra members, as if having just arrived a few minutes late to a family gathering. Then as if flipping a switch, he was in character, easing into the opening bars of the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, in the composer’s own arrangement for cello and strings.
Many a virtuoso has taken up this happy-sad, wistful-grateful melody, derived from a Russian folk song. In other hands on Sunday, it could easily have come across as an exercise in canned sentimentality, as heartfelt as a Hallmark card. But Ma’s tempo was slower than most, his phrasing suggesting the arcs of a singer’s voice, his dark velvety tone less brilliant than inward-drawing. The dazzling fireworks would come later, this performance seemed to say; let’s begin instead with remembering why we are here. Some 5,000 garrulous listeners in the Shed fell into a quiet reverie. I’m not sure which other artists could switch a concert’s gears so quickly. Ma projects extroversion and introversion with equal naturalness.
The afternoon’s promised pyrotechnics were not far away, as the program continued with Ma as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations.” Here he quickly distilled the character of each variation, from the genial conversational tone of the second to the desolate lyricism of the sixth and the gymnastic, cascading virtuosity of the seventh.
For his part, Zinman proved a sensitive accompanist. After intermission, he led a solid if at times untidy reading of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, with tempo choices that were not uniformly persuasive. Moments of intensity sometimes sagged into sluggishness. And the would-be explosive ending of the third movement had a cast-aside air, as if Zinman were trying to sidestep the perennial early-applause problem by signaling that the work in fact continued for a final movement. The audience applauded early anyway.
More Tchaikovsky had concluded the previous night’s program, with the Frenchman Stéphane Denève back on the podium, and an account of the Fourth Symphony that was brilliantly played if interpretively unexceptional. Best of all were the brass contributions and some of the woodwind solos in the inner movements, including those from John Ferrillo (oboe) and Cynthia Meyers (piccolo). Saturday’s fullest meal, however, came courtesy of Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto, a late work of imaginative color and deep-welled melody, poetically rendered here by soloist Leonidas Kavakos, who also made the most of this work’s blistering cadenza. The violinist further held the Shed spellbound with his hushed encore, Tarrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” in Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement, performed here with a technique at once exacting and subtle.
Denève did not always bring the utmost clarity to Szymanowski’s thick orchestral textures, but he showed an expert hand in shaping the vaporous, languid sound world of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” with Elizabeth Rowe’s solo flute gracefully “lulling the fold,” as Mallarmé put it elsewhere. Denève will be back next weekend with Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” cantata and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with Emanuel Ax.
On Friday night, the BSO celebrated the 70th birthday of conductor Leonard Slatkin, who made his Symphony Hall debut back in 1980 and has appeared with the orchestra numerous times since then. For Slatkin, who currently directs the orchestras of Detroit and Lyon, France, the concert was also presumably something of a grand send-off from Tanglewood, as the conductor has announced this will be his final summer of guest conducting (though he will continue guest appearances during the regular season).
For the occasion, the BSO commissioned a curtain-raiser from William Bolcom, who in turn wrote a brief and unapologetically joyful romp of a work inspired by the pops-style confections of Leroy Anderson. Titled “Circus Overture: into the eighth decade,” Bolcom’s score sends his colleague and friend of 50 years into said decade with well-crafted exuberance. Slatkin led it with energy and panache, even drawing laughter from the crowd during one interlude for clowning trombones.
Reflecting Slatkin’s rare commitment to certain traditions of American orchestral music, the program continued with the first score by Wayne Barlow (1912-96) to be performed by the BSO: “The Winter’s Past.” It’s a short work of plainspoken yet shapely lyricism for oboe and strings, here showcasing the BSO’s Ferrillo as eloquent soloist. This all-American first half was then capped with Barber’s Violin Concerto.
Very few scores in all of classical music can match the popularity of Barber’s Adagio for strings, but the Violin Concerto has also surely won the composer many admirers with its high-flown melodies and cresting neo-Romanticism, not to mention its sprinting moto-perpetuo finale. Gil Shaham was on hand as soloist, tackling the work with unassailable technique if also, unfortunately, what felt like more than a bit of autopilot. At this point in his career, Shaham can play this music forward, backward, or sideways — and he will always bring a crowd to its feet by taking the finale at such a dizzying clip. I wish he had also earned Friday’s ovation by having something burningly urgent to say with this music.
The night closed with Slatkin leading a thoughtful, well-judged account of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, a work whose expressive range is wide enough to have lent a certain gravity to both of the evening’s ceremonial purposes, as a celebration and farewell.