LENOX — “I find it very agreeable,” Nathaniel Hawthorne reported from his tiny cottage on the outskirts of Lenox, “to get rid of politics and the rest of the damnable turmoil that has disturbed me for three or four years past.” That was in 1850, but Hawthorne, whose “Tanglewood Tales” gave the region its lasting name, could easily have been speaking for concertgoers at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s final summer weekend. This was the BSO’s first full Tanglewood schedule since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in their Berkshires paradise of majestic trees, mountain breezes, and ravishing music.
The weather was picture-perfect Saturday evening, with picnickers on the lawn lighting candles here and there as dusk descended and stars flickered overhead. And yet, as the hardworking musicians prepared to pack up their bassoons and basses and head back to Symphony Hall, the “damnable turmoil” was not quite so easily silenced.
For one thing, guest conductor and longtime BSO stalwart Michael Tilson Thomas had scheduled an artful balance — a conversation, really — between American and Russian works, as though a musical bridge could be built across hostilities generated by the war in Ukraine. Thomas, who recently described his brain cancer as being at bay, was greeted with a prolonged and grateful standing ovation. He opened the concert with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s short and rousing “Dubinushka,” a rallying cry for oppressed workers during the democratic Russian uprising of 1905, played with urgency and flair, and with a clarion trumpet leading the way.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto was the featured piece on the first half of Saturday’s program with the magnificent 20-year-old Russian phenom Alexander Malofeev. The concerto was itself a cultural bridge, written for a 1909 American tour by the great Russian composer and virtuoso pianist, who died in his adopted Beverly Hills home in 1943. In another reminder of our vexed moment, Thomas and Malofeev previously had been scheduled to play together in March with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, only to have the engagement canceled despite Malofeev’s stated opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.
Rach 3, as it is known among aspiring young pianists (as well as in the popular 1996 film “Shine,” about an Australian pianist’s struggles with mental illness), is overwhelmingly gorgeous in its rolling, tide-like sonorities, as well as physically arduous. From the opening notes, Malofeev, his head bent to the piano, seemed to summon the melody from the keys, as though they were divining rods to which he listened intently. He followed neither Martha Argerich’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners onslaught nor Yuja Wang’s seemingly effortless precision, adopting instead a bewitching sonic terrain of his own, lyrical, sensitive, and haunted. And he brought down the house. After repeated standing ovations, with audience members cheering in the aisles and conductor and soloist arm in arm, Malofeev played, to the hungry delight of the audience, a silky and heartfelt piano version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” pas de deux.
The final piece on Saturday’s program, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, was partly composed at Tanglewood and has an appropriately outdoorsy feel to it, with some moments that recall his “Appalachian Spring” and others — with an insistent ring of peripheral voices from piano, xylophone, and seemingly every possible percussion instrument — a small-town bandstand in midsummer. The audience, still amped up after Malofeev’s star turn, broke into scattered applause after the first movement. Thomas, whose evocative hand gestures made him the most expressive performer on the stage, turned to the audience and said, to appreciative laughter and more applause, “I agree!” Copland’s finale, incorporating his familiar “Fanfare for the Common Man” in its entirety, again suggested the overarching democratic theme of the evening.
The final afternoon matinee of the Tanglewood season is traditionally reserved for Beethoven’s Ninth, the so-called “Choral” symphony. It was paired on Sunday with another innovative choral piece, Charles Ives’s setting of Psalm 90, conducted by James Burton, the BSO choral director and conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Considered by some to be Ives’s valedictory work, “Psalm 90″ carries the Whitmanian message, filtered through shimmering tone clusters, that each human being is as evanescent as grass: “In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.” The chorus, singing the King James text with nuanced conviction, lingered hopefully on the word “flourisheth” before the bad news kicked in.
With Beethoven’s towering Ninth Symphony, historical resonances again seemed unavoidable. This great hymn to democratic solidarity (“All men are made brothers”) was composed in the wake of so many disappointed hopes: Napoleon’s betrayal of the French Revolution followed by the restoration, after Waterloo, of autocratic rulers across Europe. The piece seems unsettlingly appropriate, alas, in our own precarious times.
It was thrilling to hear the BSO’s marvelous strings — initiated by the fabulous bass section’s tentative sounding of the theme, along with the cellos — trade the melodic setting for Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” across the stage. “Be embraced ye millions! This kiss is for the whole world!” The four vocal soloists established distinct characters in their operatic ensembles. The bass-baritone Dashon Burton, making his BSO and Tanglewood debuts, particularly impressed, bringing a witty and joyful turn of phrase to Schiller’s arresting opening: “Oh friends, not these sounds!”
Beethoven’s tremendous finale ends with triumphant hopes for the future. And yet, the prolonged and agonizing quest for this message, in repeated fits and starts, suggests that Hawthorne’s “damnable turmoil” just might be with us for a while. Aware that every appearance of Michael Tilson Thomas is a gift, the audience at Sunday’s concert was understandably reluctant to say farewell.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
At: Tanglewood, Aug. 27 and 28
Christopher Benfey is a cultural historian and the author of five books on the American Gilded Age.