LENOX — Newcomers to Tanglewood are often surprised to learn it is essentially two festivals in one, offering the performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its summer residence but also the activities of a venerable school for advanced musical training known as the Tanglewood Music Center. Every year some 150 fellows are selected to live locally and perform at the center, which this summer is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
The school was the brainchild of Serge Koussevitzky, who first dreamed it up in Moscow before the First World War — long before the Tanglewood festival itself was even a twinkle in the eyes of its founders. Koussevitzky’s initial concept was unabashedly utopian, and in 1939 he spoke of the center as creating “new and great values of art,” as radiating “the beams of high culture over a nation and the whole world” and as “training a new generation of American artists.”
In this last category in particular, the TMC has made a lasting mark, at least judged by the names of the fellows who have roamed its emerald lawns on their way to illustrious careers. That list starts with Leonard Bernstein but extends far beyond it. Claudio Abbado, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Zubin Mehta are among its alumni. So are players in the ranks of most American orchestras.
A portion of Koussevitzky’s utopian vision still endures at the TMC, at least in its regard for the importance of living composers in the larger ecology of the art form. Challenging new music is rarely spotted on the BSO’s own programs in the Shed, but it’s not uncommon in Ozawa Hall, and the TMC’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music can feel like a veritable alternative universe, where all the music is new and where audiences and players alike have an appetite for the unfamiliar.
For this anniversary summer, in recognition of the emphasis the TMC has placed on classical music as a generative — and not merely interpretive — art, the center has commissioned an unprecedented 34 new works. A bit of the festival’s spirit, in other words, should be felt at all the TMC programs this July and August. That was certainly true of the TMC Orchestra’s first performance of the summer, which took place on Sunday evening in Ozawa Hall and featured the premiere of a newly commissioned work by John Williams, one of the 34 new scores.
The piece telegraphs its genial nature through its title alone — “JUST DOWN WEST STREET . . . on the left” — in other words, directions to Tanglewood from the center of Lenox. The brief piece itself, too, has something of a welcome-to-town bearing in its bright hues and bustling, motoric churn. At the outset, jagged brass fanfares give way to a scurrying theme passed around the strings, who then take up a slightly darker Shostakovichian melody offset by burbling woodwinds, and later, vivid splashes of percussion. The ending is emphatic and effective.
On Sunday, conductor Stefan Asbury drew a vibrant and confident performance from the TMC Orchestra, one that gave no hint that this group first came together as an ensemble only days ago. The Williams piece took its place on a program whose unifying theme was variations in music, with entries by Brahms (“Variations on a Theme by Haydn”), Sibelius (the Fifth Symphony) and Britten (“The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”). The Britten was narrated, with delectably straight-faced wit, by Mark Morris. Two TMC fellows — Ruth Reinhardt and Marzena Diakun — capably shared with Asbury the night’s conducting duties.
In addition to its steady diet of new music and commissions, the TMC Orchestra will continue its work on standard repertoire this summer, culminating in a performance of Mahler’s epic Eighth Symphony (Aug. 8) under the baton of Andris Nelsons. Before then, TMC’s storied opera program will also have its moment in the sun, with a concert (Aug. 2) devoted to excerpts from two operas that had their American premieres at the TMC: Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Britten’s “Albert Herring” as well as Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar,” given its world premiere here in 2003. And for those eager to dip into the school’s history, free streams of performances dating to 1940 are being offered from the festival’s website.
All told, it should be a memorable summer for those lucky students who happen to be fellows at the TMC during this anniversary year, but also for the listeners willing to venture away from the festival’s other mainstage enticements. Those exploratory trips are often rewarded with music-making that can, at its best, offer a different kind of immediacy, one that evidently dates back the full 75 years. “You are young,” Koussevitzky used to exhort his charges. “Play it from your heart.”
TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER ORCHESTRA
At: Ozawa Hall, Sunday night