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Nelsons arrives, raising the tempo at Tanglewood

Andris Nelsons acknowledged the Tanglewood audience prior to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s all-Dvorak program on Friday night.Hilary Scott/Hillary Scott

LENOX — Even the serene and bucolic grounds of Tanglewood can sometimes pulse with a certain caffeinated energy, and this weekend it came from a new source: Andris Nelsons was here for his first visit to Tanglewood since his appointment last year as the Boston Symphony Orchestra's next music director. The Shed was bustling, and critics and cultural journalists from various US and European press outlets were in attendance. It was a taste, one can hope, of the boost Nelsons is capable of bringing to the fortunes of an orchestra that has slogged through a difficult and lengthy period of transition.

Perhaps reflecting these high hopes, the crowd for Friday night's all-Dvorak program greeted Nelsons with a standing ovation before a single note was played. For his part, Nelsons looked happy to finally be here — his visit last summer was canceled after an accident in Germany — and he went on to lead the BSO in the orchestra's first-ever performance of the composer's symphonic poem "The Noonday Witch."


The piece itself is a loosely programmatic rendering of a rather grim 19th-century poem by Karel Jaromir Erben in which a mother who is trying to cook a meal is undone by a screeching child and summons the eponymous witch, with tragic results ensuing. Written late in Dvorak's career, the music has the dramatic flair of a composer with nine symphonies already behind him. Leaning in to sculpt Friday's performance with wide and emphatic gestures, Nelsons led an account that was theatrical in character and sparkling in detail.

Dvorak's Violin Concerto has long been overshadowed by the composer's Cello Concerto but in the right hands it can make an equally powerful impression. Having taken on this formidable piece at Symphony Hall in February, the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter returned to it on Friday night, electrifying the crowd with her committed and exacting display of the work's substantial pyrotechnics. That said, her reading also at times had a certain episodic quality, one that left at least this listener wishing for a more integrated, and more deeply inhabited, sense of interpretive vision beneath the flurry of notes.


Nelsons accompanied the concerto with sensitivity and also, notably, brought a sense of independent life and color to orchestral passages often treated as mere connective tissue. A handsomely dispatched account of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony followed intermission, its opening movements vigorously shaped, and its scherzo setting high standards of gracefulness in its lilt. There were occasions when Nelsons's moment-by-
moment approach threatened to over-emphasize trees at the expense of the forest, but overall his performance persuaded
by sheer dint of its exuberant freshness.

Nelsons does not officially assume his post until September and plenty of larger questions still loom. The biggest in the Tanglewood department is the most basic: How much time will Nelsons devote to the festival given his other summer commitments (which this year include performances at the Bayreuth and Lucerne festivals)? But a close second is the question of what his appetite will be for involvement at the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO's summer academy for advanced musical training. At 35, he is not far from the age of many TMC fellows, and he has spent most of his career representing the rising young generation rather than mentoring it.

At least as regards the second question, Saturday night's concert began auspiciously, with Nelsons leading the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the Suite and final scene from Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier." The students looked — and sounded — deeply motivated and played splendidly for Nelsons, who drew a lushly textured and richly atmospheric account of this beloved score. Written after Strauss had peered into the modern abyss with "Salome" and "Elektra," "Rosenkavalier" found the composer glancing backward in a kind of gilded retrospection. The music suggests a gentle farewell to an older Vienna, a once-glittering city that was always perhaps as much myth as it was reality, but no less seductive for that fact. The final scene, regarded as one of the pinnacles of Strauss's writing for the female voice, was winningly sung on Saturday by Sophie Bevan (as Sophie), Isabel Leonard (as Octavian) and, with an extra tug of vulnerability, by Angela Denoke (as the Marschallin).


The Strauss should probably have been placed last on Saturday's concert, as it landed with a force that could not be equaled by Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances" or Ravel's "Bolero," despite the characterful accounts these works received from Nelsons and the BSO. In future summers, Nelsons would do well to go even further and pick up on recent Tanglewood traditions by leading the TMC fellows in performances of full operas in concert. Judging from Saturday night's preview, and from the parallel career Nelsons has built as an opera conductor in houses across Europe, such programming could easily become a highlight of the summer.


This weekend's repertoire tended toward bread-and-
butter staples, but next weekend will give Nelsons a chance to introduce newer works by Christopher Rouse and the Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson. Meanwhile, programming heats up at Ozawa Hall this week, beginning with medieval music courtesy of Sequentia, and ending many centuries later, with the annual Festival of Contemporary Music.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com