LENOX — Activity at Tanglewood this weekend reached a fever pitch thanks to the Festival of Contemporary Music (or FCM) running alongside the typical wealth of BSO offerings. Even a brief stoppage of all activity due to severe weather could do nothing more than momentarily pause its momentum.
Under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, Friday night’s BSO performance set the weekend’s tone of old alongside new. In the latter category was Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story,” an oratorio-like work dramatizing women’s struggles for equality and dignity across American history. With potent vocal contributions from members of the Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, artistic director) delivered from several points on the stage, the work, which was performed and reviewed this March in Symphony Hall, once again packed a powerful punch. Mahler’s First Symphony rounded out the program and, although the high humidity at certain points appeared to be taking its toll on intonation, this reading hit its own expressive mark, with the final movement in particular marked by enormous dramatic and dynamic contrasts.
This year’s edition of FCM was co-curated by the composers Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Tebogo Monnakgotla, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. At Saturday evening’s Ozawa Hall program, two particular works stood out, the first being Kaija Saariaho’s “New Gates.” As expertly performed by Dominique Kim (flute), Evalynn Tyros (viola), and Laia Barberà de Luna (harp), the piece beautifully blended and expanded the ensemble’s color palette in previously unimagined directions. And the second was Ania Vu’s “small tenderness,” a setting of the composer’s own poem of the same name for vocal sextet and string quartet, dedicated to Ellen Highstein, the Tanglewood Music Center’s much-admired director from 1997 to 2022. The piece’s artful vocal writing ranges from percussive whispers to glinting, pure-voiced lines that, in this premiere under the incisive baton of Stefan Asbury, blended elegantly into the roiling cauldron of strings.
Under the surely paced direction of the Russian conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, Saturday night’s BSO program was a satisfying, mostly French affair bookended by Messiaen (“Les Offrandes oubliées”) and Ravel (the Second Suite from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” — a work that runs deep in the BSO’s bloodstream). Between the two came Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’été,” with the velvet-voiced contralto Avery Amereau stepping in with impressive confidence as vocal soloist to replace an indisposed Isabel Leonard. Filling out the program was Agata Zubel’s “In the Shade of an Unshed Tear,” a formidably abstract and highly fractured essay for orchestra.
Sunday afternoon’s BSO concert drew a large crowd thanks presumably to two factors: the sunshine, which was abundant, and the violin soloist, which was the perennial Tanglewood favorite Joshua Bell. He brought with him Paganini’s knuckle-busting Violin Concerto No. 1, which hadn’t been heard at Tanglewood in almost 40 years.
To complain that this piece’s ratio of pyrotechnic display to spiritually ennobling melody is too high would be like complaining that it’s difficult to quietly meditate at the Esplanade on the Fourth of July: The fireworks are the point. No one pulled them off like Paganini in his own lifetime, and Bell here took on these acrobatics with relish and dispatched them with aplomb. He also contributed his own cadenzas, flush once more with dazzling display but also containing nods to the Beethoven Violin Concerto and, more obliquely, the Bach Chaconne. As a pair of references, they suggest he sees this concerto as existing not as its own virtuoso novelty act but rather somehow in dialogue with those revered landmarks of the violin repertoire.
Sunday’s program, under the baton of BSO assistant conductor Anna Rakitina, began with the reprisal of another recently composed work, Ellen Reid’s “When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist,” presented last season by Rakitina in Symphony Hall. The work’s imaginative scoring includes a key part for three vocalists (here Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver, and Sonja Dutoit Tengblad) who sing textless tones that seemingly take the measure of the larger mood. As the massed orchestral sound grows violently percussive and dissonant, their lines sound a kind of existential alarm. Yet in the work’s calmer final pages, they sing with a distilled sense of longing, chanting out rhythmically halting syllables on a single pitch like a kind of Morse code from the abyss.
The afternoon concluded with music from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” led by Rakitina with indefatigable energy, vibrancy, and grace. This was her final performance as the BSO’s assistant conductor. She will be missed.
Sunday night in the Linde Center Studio E, the Tanglewood Learning Institute presented an evening of new music for silent films by TMC composition fellows Gala Flagello, Jesse Jennings, Paul Kerekes, Annie Nikunen, and Daniel Zlatkin. This is a new annual tradition, and it has clearly caught on, as this program was sold out. Three classic silent films were shown, including Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton’s “One Week,” with a skilled ensemble performing music written only in the last few weeks. It was fascinating to hear the young composers’ different styles of approach to their respective material — all of them unified by their level of quality and imagination. What a galvanizing exercise this must be for all the composers involved — and it was certainly a pleasure for those in the audience. Let’s hope the tradition continues in the years ahead.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
and FELLOWS OF THE TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER
At Tanglewood, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday