LENOX — On Friday evening at around 8 p.m., as various idyllic shades of dusk fell over the festival grounds, Andris Nelsons gave the downbeat on the BSO’s summer season, its first normal slate of Tanglewood programs since 2019. The threat of COVID-19 has hardly disappeared, and some in the Koussevitzky Music Shed still wore masks, but the overall density of the crowd and the familiar ritual of shuffling along clogged aisles could mean only one thing: Tanglewood is now officially back.
The mood of gratitude was reflected in the opening work itself, a brief essay in cautious optimism by Leonard Bernstein entitled “Opening Prayer,” written for the reopening of Carnegie Hall in 1986. The shapely supplications from the brasses and woodwinds seem to say it all, but lest there be any lingering cosmic doubt, Bernstein sets in the work’s final paragraphs the Hebrew words of the ancient priestly blessing. On Friday, baritone Jack Canfield intoned them with both diction and dignity abundantly clear.
In the original planning for this concert, Bernstein’s prayer was intended to preface the composer’s Second Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” which features a prominent role for piano soloist, to be taken up by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. But a loss in the French pianist’s family necessitated his withdrawal, which in turn led to the scrapping of the entire piece and its replacement with Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Anxiety, in other words, gave way to light-hearted virtuoso fireworks. If there were any murmurs of disappointment in the crowd, they would have been hard to hear above the cheers.
That is, the cheers earned by Thibaudet’s substitute, Yuja Wang, who gave a fiery and rhapsodic account of the Liszt concerto, her playing by turns tightly coiled and lyrically expansive as the moment required, with Nelsons and the orchestra as attentive partners at every turn. The crowd afterward would not let Wang go without an encore, so she obliged with Horowitz’s “Carmen” Variations, its final flourishes dispatched with extraordinary speed and accuracy. To close the program, Nelsons and the orchestra delivered an expressively charged, sonically enveloping account of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The BSO as a whole sounded well-rested, and principal bassoon Richard Svoboda made the most of his iconic opening solo.
Saturday night’s concert opened with Carlos Simon’s “Motherboxx Connection,” an aptly chosen curtain-raiser for this all-American program. The piece was inspired by the creative collaborative Black Kirby (which describes itself as remixing the work of comic pioneer Jack Kirby along Afrofuturist lines), but this confident, bright and rhythmically infectious music spoke for itself.
The program also reflected in microcosm the broader field’s attempts to reach for a more inclusive definition of American music, in this case with Simon’s and Duke Ellington’s music represented alongside that of Barber (“Knoxville: Summer of 1915″) and Gershwin (”An American in Paris”). Pianist Aaron Diehl, whose background spans the worlds of classical and jazz, took on Ellington’s “New World A-Coming,” written and premiered in 1943. Diehl’s playing was both muscular and supple yet always attuned to the lyrical imperative in Ellington’s beautiful set of variations angled, as their title poignantly suggests, toward a more hopeful future that has not yet arrived.
In some sense, Barber’s classic setting of James Agee’s text inverts this equation, by presenting a 6-year-old’s blissfully innocent take on family life as rendered through adult eyes and therefore shadowed by the knowledge of inevitable loss. As Saturday’s vocal soloist, Nicole Cabell eloquently projected this sense of multivalence, her soprano blooming brightly with the work’s poetic contours. Nelsons was again a sympathetic partner, though his rendering of Barber’s summer night could have been a touch more languorous and atmospheric.
The American premiere of Helen Grime’s Trumpet Concerto, “night-sky-blue,” was the main event on Sunday afternoon. The piece is written for the Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, a soloist who has appeared with Nelsons so frequently as to suggest that replenishing the trumpet repertoire is currently one central plank of the BSO’s new music agenda.
In this case, Grime has written a compelling and evocative work, one that plays artfully with the trumpet’s wide range of sonorities as grasped through the shifting scrim of orchestral sound. The music, which was in the composer’s words “inspired by the idea of a garden at night,” feels consistently fresh and inventive, the solo line in a state of perpetual transformation and, at its most compelling moments, seemingly expanded from within by bright washes of percussion. Two works by Rachmaninoff (a touchingly spun account of the “Vocalise” and a robust take on the Third Symphony) rounded out the program.
At one point on Sunday, a few birds made themselves at home inside the Shed, layering their own counterpoint. While BSO audiences have clearly missed Tanglewood at full tilt, in that moment it seemed as if the place itself has also missed the music.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At: Tanglewood, July 8-10
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.