LENOX — Tanglewood loves a good tradition. Become synonymous enough with one, and you might start getting standing ovations just for showing up. It’s happened for James Taylor, it’s happened for Yo-Yo Ma, and it’s happened for John Williams: orchestral film score doyen, Boston Pops conductor laureate, and regular Tanglewood presence for the last 39 years.
The adoration is mutual. “I love Tanglewood so dearly,” Williams said from the Koussevitzky Music Shed stage before handing the podium over to conductor David Newman for Saturday evening’s Film Night program. “It is really a spiritual place.” Then, calling out what he sees as the country’s “coarsening of culture,” he put forth that the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops are “more important than [they’ve] ever been.”
He didn’t say precisely what he meant by that “coarsening.” It sounded like it may have been a diplomatically phrased reference to the guy in the White House who wants to legalize the indefinite detention of migrant children and proposed buying Greenland as if it were a golf course, and the spike in white nationalist violence that has coincided with his tenure. But if it was a politically inspired remark, it barely qualified. If one reads it that way, it’s the same vague chiding that passes for activism in much of the classical music world, seemingly crafted to alienate the smallest number of people possible.
To those who find special meaning in their music, it’s natural that orchestras — the BSO and Pops included — can be a comfort and respite in terrifying times. Now zoom out; on a macro level, orchestras are no more (or less) important than any other avenue of the arts.
But Tanglewood itself has never been just about the music. Look on the lawn, at the old couples sipping wine and reading newspapers, the blankets and tarps of every color spread with picnic dishes, the children playing, running, napping: there, you will see that spiritual place’s beating heart. In these times, inclusive gathering-places like the Tanglewood lawn are more important. Surrounded by an all-ages crowd that has come to share an experience, it’s easier to remember that there’s more to life beyond the churning news cycle.
It’s not mandated that BSO assistant conductors often make their first public outings with the orchestra at Tanglewood, but it often happens that way. So it was for Yu-An Chang, whose two-year appointment began last fall. At Friday evening’s sparsely attended show, he led the BSO in two showy, earnest symphonic works written by teenage prodigies — Mendelssohn’s overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Schubert’s Symphony No. 2. Assistant concertmaster Elita Kang, first chair for the evening, marshaled the violins through many tricky, busy passages. In some parts, entrances were rough.
The evening’s most exciting moments belonged to pianist Conrad Tao, a confident young magician at the keyboard for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Tao made his BSO and Tanglewood debuts with this program as a replacement for Ingrid Fliter, who was advised not to fly during her pregnancy. With any luck this sparkling performance will punch Tao’s BSO return ticket. Technically, he nailed the short concerto’s acrobatic and lyric episodes, with his temperament flashing between effusive and reflective. He ditched his jacket before coming out for an encore; as soon as he launched into Elliott Carter’s chromatic whirlwind “Caténaires,” it was clear why.
At the next evening’s Film Night, a capital-T tradition that Williams instigated, every square inch of lawn looked to be covered by blankets or lawn chairs. Newman, an active film composer, conducted most of the evening, which was mostly music by Williams with a few pieces by Alfred Newman (old Hollywood mainstay and David Newman’s father); in short, nostalgia-tripping all the way down the mountain.
The quality of playing, and montages, ranged from solid to undercooked. But when Williams took over the podium for the final three pieces, which were all from the “Star Wars” galaxy, the musicians laid down their very best for the great man.
The brass players especially were on fire, not missing a note of Star Wars’s iconic main title or the final encore, the “Imperial March.” Many of the BSO’s musicians are of an age to have grown up with the saga, and grinning faces could be seen all over the stage as well as the audience. As the 87-year-old Williams pulls back from conducting commitments, every opportunity to share time with him feels more precious.
Sunday afternoon closed down the season with the king of Tanglewood traditions, the farewell performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. As a prelude, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and director James Burton offered Schoenberg’s wishful “Friede auf Erden,” and then percussionists of the BSO joined in the National Park Service’s nationwide bell-ringing in commemoration of 400 years since the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in a North American English colony. The audience stood in solemn silence.
As for the symphony, it sizzled with the life that only a keen orchestra, a smart conductor, and a summer day can give it. In the first three movements, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero let the music breathe and build slowly. The pounding theme of the second movement surged with additional strength each time it recurred. Bass Morris Robinson woke the dead with the recitative and solo that ushers in the “Ode to Joy.” Initial vocal sections were too fast and forceful for the TFC and soloists to hold on, but after the jangling, lightly martial episode with its vigorous tenor solo from Nicholas Phan, the tempo pulled back, and the chorus shone bright. Guerrero was singing along, sending everyone off into the turning year with a smile. That’s a tradition worth keeping.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
BOSTON POPS ESPLANADE ORCHESTRA
TANGLEWOOD FESTIVAL CHORUS
At Tanglewood, Lenox. Aug. 23-25.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.