LENOX — In recent years, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening programs at Tanglewood have tended to feel like an “as-we-were-saying” resumption of a long-running conversation. James Levine’s 2008 performances of Berlioz’s epic “Les Troyens” — a major artistic statement — was the exception that underscored the rule.
This year was to have been a bit different, as the orchestra announced with fanfare in January that Seiji Ozawa would be returning to the festival for the first time in a decade, and would be leading the BSO for the first time since 2008. Unfortunately, in the end, Ozawa — struggling with health challenges and a “lack of physical strength,” according to the BSO — was advised by his doctors not to make the trip.
He did send emissaries, however: a delegation of young musicians from the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland, who made an impressive showing in a marathon Ozawa Hall concert Tuesday night focused on string quartets. But Ozawa’s own absence from the weekend’s festivities, and from the BSO podium itself, left excitement levels a notch or two lower than they might have been.
The Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe, who was to share Saturday night’s conducting duties with Ozawa, instead led the entirety of both Friday and Saturday’s concerts. Instruments at times audibly protested the rainy weekend’s high humidity levels, but the BSO overall sounded well-rested and ready for the long summer haul ahead. Indeed, while visitors may associate the festival with posh picnics and lazy strolls across verdant grounds, for orchestra players the Tanglewood season is the most demanding stretch of the year, with three different programs to rehearse and perform each week.
In this case, both BSO concerts were mostly French affairs, beginning on Friday with a buoyant and colorful account of Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” followed by a visit from violin soloist Joshua Bell. Few guest soloists are heard here as routinely as Bell, and few deliver as reliably vibrant and crowd-pleasing a performance of a popular Romantic score. In this case, Bell’s vehicle was Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No. 3, delivered with his customary blend of ardor and panache. The slow movement spoke with an elegant simplicity, though in the outer movements one wished at times that Lacombe had more diligently matched Bell’s own sense of acuity and point.
Prokofiev’s wartime Symphony No. 5 capped the night, and Michael Steinberg’s program note drew out the historic Koussevitzky/BSO connection to this score, even including the charming detail that it was written on music paper the conductor had supplied from Boston. Yet Koussevitzky’s actual performance record with Prokofiev’s Fifth is also worth noting: He gave the American premiere and followed it with no fewer than 16 additional performances in venues around the country over the next year. We sometimes wonder why new scores are slow to find a lasting foothold on today’s concert programs — and the issue of quality is often suspected, if quietly. But the absence of such tireless advocacy and simple repetition in the Koussevitzkian mold cannot be discounted.
Lacombe’s direction in the Prokofiev was clear and efficient, if stronger in conveying the music’s sheer sonic brilliance than a deeper grasp of its underlying architecture. Saturday’s program extended the mostly French theme, with Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and the Second Suite from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.” Occasional rough spots and misjudged balances did not significantly detract from the evening’s overall appeal, and principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe turned in evocative solos in both works.
Orff’s monumental “Carmina Burana” closed the night, and gave the Tanglewood Festival Chorus a healthy workout, its ranks augmented by the Norway Pond Junior Minstrels. Nadine Sierra, Jean-Francis Monvoisin, and Stephen Powell were the evening’s vocal soloists. For his part, Lacombe proved a skilled and zealous advocate for this music’s poundingly atavistic rhythms and its fanciful lyric scenes. This is music that wastes no time knocking on the doors of the brain’s primal pleasure centers (which is surely why it’s been used in so many television commercials over the years). Saturday’s audience answered with a robust ovation.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Jacques Lacombe, conductor
At Tanglewood, Friday and Saturday nights