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BSO opens its 85th summer at Tanglewood

Under music director Andris Nelsons, the orchestra performed repertory staples alongside newer works by Iman Habibi and Jessie Montgomery

From left, soprano Julia Bullock, BSO music director Andris Nelsons, and composer Jessie Montgomery at Tanglewood's Koussevitzky Music Shed on Sunday afternoon.Hilary Scott

LENOX — The seemingly endless rain dampened grounds but not spirits this weekend as the Boston Symphony Orchestra kicked off the 85th season of the Tanglewood music festival.

In years past, opening-night conducting duties have sometimes been assigned to visiting guests, but this year BSO music director Andris Nelsons was on the podium in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. With the seat notably vacant where former president Gail Samuel used to sit, and as if to provide some sense of continuity or reassurance during this time of institutional transitions, Nelsons gave an extended welcome speech from the podium reminding people, in essence, why they came. His comments called to mind the heightened private significance of culture within the Soviet society in which Nelsons came of age. With music, he said simply, “we can be ourselves.”


Friday’s program opened with a rousing account of Wynton Marsalis’s fanfare “Herald, Holler, and Hallelujah!” — in which, to quote the composer’s own words, “brazen brass hollers and shouts in the harsh-tongued dialect of iron and steel.” Nelsons then welcomed back the celebrated Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov as soloist in Prokofiev’s iconic Third Piano Concerto.

Trifonov’s performance was a marvel, combining raw steely power and poetic finesse in equal measure. In the outer movements, he found ways to articulate expressive micro-phrasings within Prokofiev’s dizzyingly fast passagework; and in the mistier variations of the slow movement, he lofted the solo line in an alluring, almost painterly haze of color. Following the concerto, he rewarded the roaring crowd with an encore of more Prokofiev, a sensitive account of the Gavotte from “Cinderella.”

As part of Friday's opening-night program at Tanglewood, pianist Daniil Trifonov performed Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with members of the BSO under the baton of music director Andris Nelsons. Hilary Scott

Friday’s concert concluded with a high-octane performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, beginning with a strong showing from the new Sebring-era horn section (in late-April, Richard “Gus” Sebring assumed the principal chair formerly occupied by James Sommerville). The limpid eloquence of John Ferrillo’s second-movement oboe solo was one among many highlights of this performance. Another was the notable rise in the temperature of the string playing throughout.


On Saturday night, Keith Lockhart and the pops reprised their semi-staged production of “Ragtime,” performed and reviewed this May in Symphony Hall. And on Sunday afternoon, Nelsons was back on the podium to lead the premiere of “Zhian,” a new BSO-commissioned work by Canadian-Iranian composer Iman Habibi.

The piece was written in solidarity with the wave of protests that swept Iran following the death last September of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the country’s morality police. As Habibi explained in remarks from the stage, the work’s title means “life” in Kurdish and “indignant” in Persian.

The sincerity and emotional inspiration of the work, some 13 minutes in length, is palpable in the music itself. Habibi deploys the full resources of the orchestra to build up churning, slowly evolving masses of sound. Abrupt shifts in direction function like jump cuts and represent, according to the composer, the jolts to daily life during a time of social upheaval. In Sunday’s performance, the work’s impact was, to use an alternate translation of its title, formidable.

The commission was followed by Jessie Montgomery’s “Five Freedom Songs,” an orchestral song cycle built on the stirring texts of five traditional Black spirituals, each of them in different ways carrying forward a memory of suffering, a yearning for freedom, and a quietly thundering moral indictment of slavery. Montgomery has given these texts completely fresh musical treatments, and while the songs vary stylistically they are united by the lapidary clarity of her text setting and the powerful empathy of her own musical voice. On Sunday, soprano Julia Bullock, in her Tanglewood debut, rendered them with a beautiful combination of directness, expressive honesty, and poetic restraint. This cycle should be performed far and wide.


The afternoon was capped by the return of violinist Hilary Hahn as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. With legions of her younger fans packed into the Shed, Hahn was met with a kind of rock-star reception from the moment she stepped on stage. She did not disappoint them. While there were some slightly unsettled moments in the partnership between Hahn and Nelsons, her confidence and rock solid technique carried the day. After all the heated virtuosity of Brahms’s final movement, Hahn then made a wise choice in her calmly lyrical encore — “Through My Mother’s Eyes” by Steven Banks — a work inspired by that original genre of human song, the lullaby.


Andris Nelsons, conductor

At: Tanglewood, Friday night and Sunday afternoon

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at, or follow him @Jeremy_Eichler.