LENOX — Ever hear Virgil Thomson's musical portrait of Fiorello
La Guardia? Or how about Jerome Kern's portrait of Mark Twain? These were sibling works of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," all three commissioned in the early 1940s to spotlight great national figures in a time of war.
That Copland's work alone has survived its era and lived on as one of his most frequently performed scores speaks to both the composer's populist gifts but also to the enduring resonance of Lincoln's oratory. If Copland had made this work a strictly instrumental score without narration, it's hard to imagine a similar afterlife.
Solemnly intoned words from the Gettysburg Address rang out once more over the grounds of Tanglewood on Friday night, as the "Lincoln Portrait" anchored the season-opening performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Jessye Norman had been scheduled as the narrator before back problems forced her withdrawal. In her stead, the actor John Douglas Thompson brought a gravitas and understated charisma to the role.
And indeed the work's text itself, assembled by Copland from several of Lincoln's letters and speeches, has a way of remaining pertinent. At the time of the piece's creation, Carl Sandburg observed that "the ideas of Lincoln fight the ideas of Hitler." At Friday's performance, recent national events in Charleston and beyond made the text once more feel far from a dusty historical souvenir.
The French-Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe presided over this all-American concert, which also featured jazz-tinted works by Gershwin, Ellington, and John Harbison. It was a nice idea to open with Harbison's "Remembering Gatsby," a "foxtrot for orchestra" written in the mid-1980s and based on ideas for a Gatsby opera that Harbison feared at the time might never come to fruition.
Happily, the opera was in fact completed as a Met commission, and has been performed both in Boston and at Tanglewood in recent years. (This winter it will have its European premiere at the Semperoper Dresden.)
On Friday night, Lacombe's vigorous account largely hit its mark, falling shy only in a few subtleties of atmosphere and characterization. His reading of Ellington's "Harlem" was also well-paced and effective, lifted by many wonderfully piquant contributions from BSO winds, brass, and percussion.
But it was Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F that seemed to win the biggest cheers of the evening, thanks in no small part to the superb pianism of Kirill Gerstein.
This Russian-born classical pianist has deep roots in the jazz world, and his account wedded a seemingly effortless virtuosity with an irresistible rhythmic freedom born no doubt of his wide stylistic training. In his hands, this concerto's hybrid DNA seemed to find a completely natural expression.
It was hard to experience a concert like this one without thinking of the Third Stream music of Gunther Schuller, who died last month at age 89. It would have been a meaningful and organic gesture to have added a brief Schuller work to this opening night program, but he will at least receive a tribute later this summer, with a premiere scheduled and a Festival of Contemporary Music concert dedicated to his memory.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Jacques Lacombe, conductor
At: Tanglewood, Friday night
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.