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MUSIC REVIEW

At Tanglewood, BSO makes joyful return to live performance

Music director Andris Nelsons kicked things off Saturday with an all-Beethoven program.
Music director Andris Nelsons kicked things off Saturday with an all-Beethoven program.Hilary Scott/Boston Symphony Orchestra

LENOX — The lawn seemed somehow even greener and more expansive than before, the view of the rolling Berkshire hills somehow more crystalline. Even the birds, judging from their insistent mid-movement countermelodies, seemed to be thrilled that the music was finally back.

Familiarity and strangeness, relief and disbelief, commingled on Saturday as some 9,000 listeners streamed through the gates at Tanglewood under clear cerulean skies. And after some 16 months of silence and masked performances to empty halls, the Boston Symphony Orchestra finally made a triumphant return to live performance.

As if to underline the significance of the moment, the orchestra made a dramatic European-style entrance, converging on the stage all at once and sparking from the crowd an instant ovation, one that seemed unusually heartfelt. It was the first of many statements of appreciation that night, from both sides of the footlights. “What an extraordinary feeling,” said music director Andris Nelsons, speaking from the stage. “I can’t express enough from myself, and of course from our amazing orchestra, how much we missed you.”

Nelsons also introduced the BSO’s new president and CEO, Gail Samuel, who in turn thanked the patrons, the musicians, the staff, and former CEO Mark Volpe for sustaining the ensemble through what was surely the greatest period of disruption in its 140-year history.

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The symphonic centerpiece for the night’s all-Beethoven program was freighted with some symbolic meaning, as the orchestra chose the Fifth Symphony, the same work that opened the festival’s inaugural season in 1937. The fact that its associations also include the “V” for Allied victory in the Second World War — derived from the translation into Morse code of its short-short-short-long rhythmic opening — couldn’t have hurt matters.

And the orchestra gave it a thrilling performance. Under normal circumstances, a warhorse like the Fifth might solicit a more routine account, but there was nothing routine about this occasion. The orchestra played as if releasing the pent-up energies of its long fallow period. Brass playing had a focused power, the woodwinds a liquid warmth, and the strings an extra sense of commitment. Even a few of the string players who typically don masks of stony professionalism could be seen digging in with an extra zeal.

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Pianist Emanuel Ax performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the BSO.
Pianist Emanuel Ax performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the BSO.Hilary Scott/Boston Symphony Orchestra

The evening’s unflashy yet wise soloist was pianist Emanuel Ax, one of the many star artists who recorded digital performances from the Tanglewood Learning Center last summer as the festival lay closed to the public. His vehicle of choice was Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, which he rendered with a well-judged and understatedly moving account. The outer movements mixed thoughtful vigor with pellucid lyricism. The slow movement featured beautifully spun phrasing by soloist and orchestra alike. Both parties seemed to listen and respond to each other with unusual care.

Saturday night’s opening work — the very first notes of the BSO’s return — might have seemed like a chance to make a powerful symbolic statement by virtue of its choice of repertoire, a chance to signal the orchestra’s new direction, its renewed vision. Instead the BSO went with the colorful yet otherwise seemingly arbitrary choice of Beethoven’s Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus.” Why this work as opposed to any other was not clear.

Sunday’s program by contrast opened with a vibrant new work by a living composer. Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers” was created in response to the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony but has the propulsive vitality to stand on its own as it did here. Nelsons and the orchestra concluded the afternoon with a charming and robust account of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony.

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Composer Carlos Simon (center) took a bow with the BSO.
Composer Carlos Simon (center) took a bow with the BSO.Hilary Scott/Boston Symphony Orchestra

In between came the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. Her rather unconventional account seemed to eschew long soloistic lines in favor of swatches of color, albeit delicately applied, and somewhat disconnected flashes of light and heat. For this listener the interpretation held more promise than it actually delivered but the Shed audience as a whole responded with cheers.

So what now? Having emerged from this plague and having just welcomed its new CEO and President, the BSO is clearly at an institutional inflection point. What happens next will be critical. Even its own press materials state it is beginning “to imagine its next chapter in a post-COVID world.”

Few signs of re-imagining were present this weekend, and no new directions were telegraphed by these opening festivities. But that was clearly not the point. As the crowd filed out on Sunday afternoon it was hard not to marvel at the simple glorious fact that this summer season exists. A few restrictions remain in place — intermissions are gone, there will be no vocal music this summer, and the grounds are limited to half of their usual capacity — but these concessions felt peripheral to the larger story: The BSO is back. Tanglewood is back. Live music has returned.

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Which is also to say, in some basic sense, music itself has returned. Benjamin Britten once put it in terms of a kind of magical triangle: “A musical experience needs three human beings at least,” he wrote. “It requires a composer, a performer, and a listener.”

At long last, the triangle is complete.


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.