LENOX — The friendship between cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax began over a half century ago in the Juilliard School cafeteria, according to Ma’s Facebook page. At this point, they’re part of the DNA of summers at Tanglewood, as much as picnicking and the smell of citronella candles. To the Tanglewood community, they’re just Manny and Yo-Yo; two stellar musicians who happen to be fixtures of the festival. To everyone else, they’re among the brightest stars to shine from the Koussevitzky Music Shed stage.
The BSO doesn’t let just anyone use the Shed when it takes a night off, but Ax and Ma aren’t just anyone. Even people who don’t know classical music know who Ma is. Whenever he appears for any reason at Tanglewood, full parking lots and heavy traffic are inevitable. (A special round of bravos for the crew of yellow-vested parking coordinators, who had to wrangle two Yo-Yo-size crowds this weekend.) The reason they have such pull is only partially because of their musical skills; the rest can be credited to the fact that they don’t just perform music, but serve as ambassadors for it, and they are very good at what they do. Add the come-one-and-all spirit of the Tanglewood lawn, and it’s a match made in heaven.
Friday night, the final program of the three-part “Pathways from Prague” series, curated by Ax, drew an eager audience to the Shed. With the usual orchestral accoutrements cleared from the stage, the space seemed cavernous before the lights went down. But Ax and his co-conspirators on this program (Ma, plus violinist Leonidas Kavakos and violist Antoine Tamestit) readily made the 5,000-plus-seat Shed feel as intimate as a living room in a convivial program of Czech music. Tamestit followed up his impressive debut with the BSO last weekend, transferring three of Dvorak’s “Gypsy Songs” (typically vocal repertoire) to the viola and rendering the melodies with gentle incandescence.
“I listen to Manny in all things,” Ma said while bantering with Ax and the crowd before embarking on Leoš Janáček’s “Fairy Tale;” the performance that followed proved his comment was completely true in the musical sense, at least. After intermission, Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat enthralled; I had been eager to see Tamestit and Ma share the stage since I noticed the similarities in their sounds last weekend and was not disappointed. There were moments where if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t tell which of them was playing. And because Ma does not simply walk into a concert without an encore, the show wasn’t over when the program was; several listeners who had hoped to beat the traffic found themselves pulled back toward the Shed with the sound of a movement from Schumann’s Piano Quartet.
Dima Slobodeniouk led the BSO the next night in a program of French music with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor (starring Kavakos) curiously plunked in the middle. Kavakos has been a regular presence with the BSO since the mid-2000s, but since teaming up with Ax and Ma for multiple projects in the past several years, he has started to become a Tanglewood fixture in his own right, and most of his performances have been unassailable. A sense of urgency pervades everything he plays, even the sweet and lyrical. I would have liked this particular concerto with a little more mischief and a little less urgency, but that’s individual preference. He was solidly in sync with Slobodeniouk, and the conductor hammered strong accents into the orchestral texture, throwing the familiar tunes into sharp relief. As an encore, Kavakos offered a dry, skittering arrangement of Tarrega’s classical guitar piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.” (I’ll say it as many times as I need to: Performers, please, announce your encores.)
The rest of the program was spent in fantastical fairylands. First, it was down the rabbit hole with Henri Dutilleux’s seemingly chaotic but undeniably intuitive “Métaboles.” After intermission, Elizabeth Rowe’s crystalline solo flute beckoned us into dreamy, sunlit meadows with Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and the evening finished with a vibrant grand tour through Ravel’s “Mother Goose.”
Listeners of all ages flocked to Tanglewood on Sunday afternoon to see Ma take center stage in Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, and I noticed yet again: People were excited, visibly and audibly so. When composer Anna Clyne took her bow after the orchestra played her whirlwind “Masquerade” to open the concert, many cheered and several stood up; a section of the audience even gave her a second round of applause as she took her seat again. Ma had yet to appear, but just being in his presence gets people fired up about music. His Elgar concerto was introspective; he seemed to reach for some longed-for sweetness but then snap back into a grimmer reality, sometimes locking eyes with the cello section (which often echoes or bolsters the soloist) as if he were a general leading troops into battle. Would there be an encore? Of course, he’s Yo-Yo Ma. But after introducing Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” he took a seat at the back of the cello section and joined in as principal cellist Blaise Dejardin led a cello choir arrangement of the bittersweet old tune.
Guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru, making his BSO and Tanglewood debuts, handled the orchestra with striking alacrity in the second half. In his hands, Debussy’s “La Mer” was enchanting, equal parts playful and majestic and incredibly effective in evoking the billowing, uncontainable expanses of the sea. The conductor then saluted his homeland of Romania with George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody in A; he had a score in front of him, but he hardly seemed to need it as he led the rowdy, luscious folk song fantasia at a breathless pace.
EMANUEL AX AND FRIENDS; BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Tanglewood, Lenox. Aug. 12-14. www.tanglewood.org