LENOX — If any overarching theme seemed to bind together this weekend’s concerts at Tanglewood, it was the notion of youth in ascendance.
Friday night brought the return of an exciting young conducting talent. Karina Canellakis made her BSO debut last summer at Tanglewood with a white-hot reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
This time it was Wagner and Rachmaninoff on the bill, and her delicately spun account of the former’s Prelude to Act 1 of “Lohengrin” and her rhythmically incisive take on the latter’s “Symphonic Dances” both reinforced last summer’s impression: She is a gifted communicator with a well-honed yet intense podium technique and a knack for harnessing the music’s structural architecture toward larger expressive ends.
In the Rachmaninoff, the gently glowing, jazz-tinged saxophone solos of Michael Monaghan deserve special mention. And the musical centerpiece of Friday’s program was Emanuel Ax’s wise and limpid account of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Virtuosity is never an end in itself for Ax. Here it was placed wholly at the service of color and fantasy.
What’s next for Canellakis? She makes her New York Philharmonic debut next season during a period in which the orchestra is unofficially auditioning several potential candidates for its next music director. She will be listened to closely. One way or another, she has a big career ahead.
The theme of youth ascendant carried over to Saturday night’s performance, for which the BSO yielded the stage to the students and early-career musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons.
It was the kind of night that no young musician would take for granted, starting with the honor of performing with the remarkable soprano Christine Goerke, the vocal soloist for Berlioz’s lyric scene, “La Mort de Cleopatra.” Goerke did not disappoint, wielding her powerful soprano with a sure sense for this visionary music’s blend of surging emotion and elegance.
But it was the evening’s symphonic offering — Mahler’s Fifth — that brought out the very best of the TMCO, beginning with the nerves-of-steel opening trumpet solo of Shea Kelsay. Principal horn Nathan Cloeter also excelled throughout the night, but this was a true ensemble performance, intensely wrought and confidently shaped, with a level of personal engagement on the part of individual section players that was impossible to miss. It was also notable that the players’ energetic response to the music seemed to spark in Nelsons a similar (and welcome) ratcheting up of heat and intensity — two ingredients that have seemed to be in oddly short supply of late from the BSO’s maestro.
Sunday’s program brought a rare opportunity to hear William Grant Still’s “In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy,” a brief but moving work that elegantly blends the sonic world of a military band with the ethos of the Black spiritual. It was commissioned during the Second World War as part of a project soliciting “patriotic” works from leading American composers.
That such a commissioning program centered on new symphonic music received government funding in its time, with ambitious plans to not only premiere the scores with the New York Philharmonic but to broadcast the performances to Allied troops, speaks of a very different cultural place for classical music. At the same time, the all-but-explicit critique in Still’s work of a country that receives the ultimate sacrifice from Black soldiers, without consistently living up to the ideals for which they died, still rings dishearteningly true.
The work was paired with “Lilacs” by George Walker (1922-2018), a setting of selections from Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” commissioned and premiered by the BSO in 1996 but untouched by the ensemble since then, despite having won a Pulitzer prize. The story of orchestras failing to consistently champion the very works they bring into the world is not a new one, but here it is difficult to separate from the broader story of historically marginalizing the voices of Black composers in the United States. To put things in positive terms, now that ensembles such as the BSO are focused on rediscovering and reappraising these voices, it is good to know that some groups may not need to search far and wide for repertoire. Sometimes it may be sitting unplayed in one’s own backyard.
The return to circulation of “Lilacs” is welcome, with its imaginative use of dissonance and Walker’s vocal writing that is unconventional yet highly expressive. On Sunday, soprano Latonia Moore, in lovely voice, gave the work a sympathetic and eloquent performance, ably supported by Nelsons and the BSO.
The Sunday matinee ended not with a whimper but a bang courtesy of pianist Seong-Jin Cho and Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. This excellent young South Korean pianist played with fire and delicacy in equal measure, and a certain lyrical quality dominated even some of the densest passagework. His whispered give-and-take with principal cello Blaise Déjardin at the end of the Andante was one of several striking moments. Another came thanks to his artful choice of an encore — the modestly profiled Sarabande from Handel’s Suite in B-flat — played here with suppleness and, after all that Brahmsian thunder, a sense of understated grace.