Until this week, Andris Nelsons had not had many opportunities to conduct the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. But the TFC gets quite a workout in the current Nelsons-led subscription program, which includes a new commission and a major choral symphony by Rachmaninoff. Add to this mix Prokofiev’s rarely heard Symphony-Concerto with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, who gave it a coruscatingly brilliant performance on Thursday night, and you have one of the more meaty and rewarding programs of the BSO’s fall season.
Playing off the night’s Russian theme was a reprise of John Harbison’s “Koussevitzky Said:” written in 2012 to mark the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood. The way Harbison sets with high seriousness some famous statements by Koussevitzky, some of them folksy in diction, gives the work its humorous gloss. But hearing the piece again on Thursday night, in a performance more vibrant than its 2012 premiere, one sensed that Harbison was up to something more deftly purposeful than simply writing a topical pièce d’occasion.
Indeed, while BSO history buffs may retain a knowledge of, and respect for, Koussevitzky’s lofty example of cultural leadership, to others he surely is just another long Russian name with a vague patina of unspecified reverence. Yet by putting some of the conductor’s first principles back into circulation, Harbison has wisely opened up the conductor’s legacy to rediscovery by today’s audiences. And not only by them: Even the BSO’s own institutional memory, it seems, is not immune at times to a variety of selective recall.
It was fitting, too, to follow the Harbison with a premiere, “Lakes Awake at Dawn,” written by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds. Modest in length and direct in its address, this work for mixed chorus and orchestra sets texts by poet Inga Abele and by the composer himself. The opening music is restless and turbulent, conveying the primal anxiety expressed in the text’s description of a sleepless night in a forest, presumably alone.
This section climaxes with a great mass of choral sound, out of which bursts a gaggle of wild glissandos, fanning out across the strings. The work concludes with an earnestly voiced “prayer for light.” Hearing Thursday’s fine performance whetted one’s appetite for more exploratory programming of music from Nelsons’s home country and its surroundings. There are so many Baltic and Russian composers, established and emerging, whose music the BSO has rarely if ever touched.
The same can even be said for some older certified masterworks from that part of the world, such as Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells,” programmed just once in the BSO’s history. That is, until Thursday night’s characterful and involving performance with three fine soloists (Victoria Yastrebova, Pavel Cernoch, and Kostas Smoriginas). Nelsons also had the TFC sounding impressively idiomatic in its Russian choral exhortations.
Before intermission came Ma’s fearsomely virtuosic Prokofiev. The cellist threw the full force of his personality into an electrifying account. At one point, adding a touch of extra drama, a strangely forceful draft in the hall wreaked havoc with the pages of Ma’s music. First Nelsons tried to help with one hand while still conducting. Then violist Cathy Basrak sprung from her seat to salvage the situation. Ma, as ever, was unflappable.