LENOX — Sometimes, as Freud might have said but didn’t, a concert is just a concert. A one-off, in other words. Three pieces come and go. Picnics are consumed, traffic is endured. By the next weekend, do you even remember what you heard? Maybe, maybe not.
But then occasionally — and I wish the Boston Symphony Orchestra would do this more often — a concert is more than just concert: It is part of a larger journey spread over several programs that build their meaning additively, affording a deeper view of a particular body of work, a fuller sense of acquaintance with an individual soloist, or, simply put, a more sustained and multidimensional listening experience.
So it was this past weekend at Tanglewood, where the orchestra convened a mini-festival of sorts featuring all five Beethoven Piano Concertos spread over three programs and interspersed with premieres of new BSO-commissioned works by Julia Adolphe, Caroline Shaw, and Elizabeth Ogonek. Adding an extra measure of coherence to the three events, the full slate of Beethoven Concertos was performed by a single soloist, the exceptional English pianist Paul Lewis. Ultimately, true to their promise on paper, the three programs added up to something greater than the sum of their parts, and the weekend as a whole instantly stands as a musical high point of the summer.
Stravinsky once remarked that a particular work by Beethoven (the “Grosse Fuge”) was so daringly new that it would always remain contemporary music. The Beethoven Piano Concertos outwardly do not possess quite the same radical edge, but their visionary qualities were accentuated here by presenting each work in the context of actual contemporary music, beginning Friday night with Adolphe’s “Makeshift Castle.”
Both of this piece’s two movements explore the tension, hinted at in the work’s title, between fragility and permanence, and the score as a whole is full of compelling dramatic contrasts. Adolphe has an acute ear for orchestral color, and she sets the scene with quiet, spectral percussion gestures. Over the course of the work, dark and somewhat menacing towers of tone are built up in the brass and then dispersed on a dime, sometimes to reveal a still, almost depopulated landscape marked by high string harmonics or the sonic haze of a cymbal. The piece doesn’t so much end as it does dissolve into a pregnant silence.
Shaw describes her “Punctum,” originally a string quartet but presented on Saturday in a new incarnation for orchestra, as “an exercise in nostalgia” inspired by a moving passage from Roland Barthes’s “Camera Lucida,” in which the author finds a photo of his deceased mother as a child and discovers in its smallest details the essence of her entire adult being. “Punctum” was also inspired by Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and Shaw plays ingeniously with the idea of tonal harmony as a kind of found object, a photograph of a loved one who has been lost, an artifact that may be savored on its own terms but cannot be separated from the ravages of time. Robust chords drift in and out of focus. Seemingly unified gestures are fractured over the orchestra as a whole. In order to actually see history, Barthes writes, we must stand apart from it. Shaw’s work seems by turns to flout and accentuate that distance from an idealized classical past.
Ogonek’s “Starling Variations,” performed on Sunday afternoon, was conceived as the second piece in an appealingly framed triptych on the theme of looking up at the sky. In this case, she was inspired by starling murmuration, a phenomenon of group flight in which a mass of starlings coordinate their movements into a larger graceful flow. Her idea was to create five separate murmurations for orchestra. And while avoiding any facile attempts at tone-painting, she nonetheless deploys the murmuration metaphor to striking effect. The music moves in shifting screens of sound. Orchestral instruments combine and recombine in unpredicted ways. Muted brass are heard over a riot of pizzicato. Upward-drifting woodwind lines fade into the deep blue. All told, the work coheres and flows with a grace worthy of her avian subjects.
In each case, the orchestra under Andris Nelsons gave the new scores sensitive, credible readings. And at each concert, the works were then followed by one or two Beethoven concertos. Sunday’s program also included the intriguing Third Symphony of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875).
For their part, these five Beethoven concertos belong to the core orchestral repertoire and are often sprinkled liberally across the BSO’s subscription season. But chances to hear them as a set are far more rare. Taken as a group, they offer an extraordinary glimpse in microcosm of the composer’s artistic growth through his early and middle periods, a sweeping itinerary of mind, heart, and spirit.
For this portion of the weekend, Paul Lewis was the conquering hero — or perhaps more accurately said, the conquering anti-hero. He is a true musician’s musician: understated, serious, subtle, and unfailingly eloquent. There is an ease and naturalness to his music-making, a sense of mountain-stream clarity, with every nuance in its place. And across these three concerts, an extraordinary marathon for any soloist, his playing was nothing less than a tour de force.
Lewis initially made his reputation through the sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, and I cannot think of another pianist of his generation whose playing presents Viennese classicism as such a coherent language with its own expressive grammar and syntax. The impression is less of an interpreter imposing ideas from the outside, and more of a native speaker of this language plumbing its depths and rendering it seamlessly in all of its sublime variety.
The pianist’s tone in these concerts was often forthright in its articulation, with a noted sturdiness and tang in the left hand, as if the modern Steinway was channeling its ancestral roots in the fortepiano of Beethoven’s day. But tonal variety is also key to Lewis’s effectiveness, and his color palette is extraordinarily wide. He can unspool a meltingly smooth legato, and particularly in the upper registers during key moments of the Fourth and Fifth concertos, he made the instrument sing with an almost impossibly liquid warmth.
Over the course of the weekend, one sensed the audience’s rapport with Lewis deepening, along with its sense of gratitude. By the time he took the stage on Sunday afternoon, there were shouts of bravo before a single note was played. He and Nelsons worked well together, and as the concerts progressed one even sensed the orchestra, which often opts for a collective poker face, quickening its own interest in this journey.
Sunday’s concert honored the four retiring members of the BSO — cellist Martha Babcock, contrabassoonist Gregg Henegar, violinist Bo Youp Hwang, and cellist Sato Knudsen — who have collectively devoted well over a century of service to the orchestra and its public. The program also acknowledged the retirement of longtime Berkshire Eagle music critic Andrew Pincus, who has covered the orchestra and the Berkshires cultural scene with care and conscience for 46 years. All five of them deserve our thanks.