The Boston Symphony Orchestra is uniquely fortunate to have Tanglewood as a stable summer home, and us listeners only benefit from those lucky circumstances. This has been true for decades, but it rings even louder as the Delta variant casts its shadow across the world’s would-be reopening. In the Koussevitzky Music Shed, a volunteer usher told me she’s noticed more masked faces with every passing weekend. This weekend she put her own mask back on for the first time this summer while on duty, and I also masked back up.
Familiar flickers of anxiety are rising in my throat every time I look at my phone. We thought we knew where we were going, and now the path is uncertain again. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any concert could be our last for another extended stretch, but when I think of indoor events I feel twitchier than I did a few weeks ago. For now it is summer, and there is music in the Shed; for now, Tanglewood’s heart still beats from the lawn, where kids run barefoot while the orchestra plays and no picnic setup is too elaborate. This is all we can know.
This summer’s abbreviated season is now more than half over, and so has ended music director Andris Nelsons’s stint on the podium. A parade of distinguished guests leads the orchestra for the rest of the season, each of them a BSO affiliate or Tanglewood Music Center alumnus. This weekend featured one of each, starting with BSO artistic partner Thomas Adès on Saturday evening.
Every time Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein get on the same stage, something memorable is pretty much guaranteed. Notably, Gerstein was the muse for Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a tremendous BSO commission that premiered at Symphony Hall in March 2019 with the composer conducting. In the same week, the two went manos a manos at Jordan Hall in a two-piano recital that featured the unforgettable sound of a string snapping when Gerstein let loose the final barrage of Lutoslawski’s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini.”
This summer’s Gerstein/Adès reunion offered Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, an animal of an entirely different color than the Slavic fantasia of last week’s “Firebird.” Born of Stravinsky’s dual fascinations with Baroque and jazz music, the concerto is a modernist labyrinth without a single dead end. Gerstein — a former jazz prodigy who evolved into a thoughtful concert pianist — might be the perfect man for the job.
The Shed was not the perfect place to hear it, however. In my seat, Gerstein’s immaculate contrapuntal flights were buried in the winds’ primary-colored blocks of sound. The sprawling, slower-paced second movement came through more clearly, and Gerstein was a delight to hear and watch, overcharged with potential energy just waiting to let rip.
Adès and the BSO strings also treated the audience to “O Albion,” three of the most gorgeous minutes in his compositional catalog. Also on the program were two relaxed and warm Haydn symphonies: No. 64 in A, “Tempora mutantur,” and No. 45 in the striking key (for the time) of F# minor, “Farewell.” With the violins split on either side of the podium, the classical symphonies were given a balanced and crisp sound.
To conclude No. 45, the concert’s final piece, the orchestra followed Haydn’s historical precedent and left the stage one by one, eventually leaving only two violins playing pianissimo amid empty chairs. Adès took that one step further, continuing to conduct to thin air even after the final violinists departed. He finally turned around and shrugged to the audience, cueing applause and the re-appearance of the orchestra for a group bow. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night.
Sunday brought a beautiful afternoon for a picnic (up to a point) and a charming program led by Alan Gilbert, lately of Hamburg’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra but more familiar to Americans as the New York Philharmonic’s music director for most of the 2010s. The soloist was also a New Yorker, albeit by way of Boston: Stefan Jackiw, filling in for Lisa Batiashvili after the Georgian violinist ran into visa trouble.
Gilbert set up a zippy orchestral backdrop for Jackiw’s take on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish,” and the soloist gave it a sprightly and sweet spin, without excessive tweeness. The only weak point was when Jackiw laid the grit on too thick during the third movement’s “Turkish” interludes (the composition has more to do with Austrian impressions of Ottoman tropes than anything else). The drastic contrast sounded more contrived than anything.
Alongside that chestnut concerto, Gilbert offered two symphonic rarities. First, there was Robert Schumann’s roaring overture based on “The Bride of Messina,” a scandalous play that Schumann considered adapting for opera. For pure thrills, the “Bride” would give Dvorak’s “Carnival” overture a run for its money, and I’d happily hear it again.
Then Gilbert introduced the BSO (and much of the audience) to the work of the late Romantic Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar with his Serenade for orchestra, circa 1920. The piece creates a fairytale atmosphere, light but not fluffy with several gorgeous clarinet solos (given the royal treatment by BSO clarinetist William Hudgins) and a mercurial Scherzo. The first wistful notes of the fourth movement nocturne coincided with the first drops of a sudden rainstorm, which sent some lawn listeners to the exits early. Many stayed put, clustering under trees or sheltering under the complimentary green Tanglewood-branded tarps. After the year we’ve been through, a little rain doesn’t seem so bad.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Tanglewood, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.