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Music Review

Golijov returns to Tanglewood for moody premiere

Conductor Stefan Asbury and French horn player James Sommerville performing with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra on Monday.
Conductor Stefan Asbury and French horn player James Sommerville performing with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra on Monday.Hilary Scott

LENOX — When the composer Osvaldo Golijov was approached to provide one of the 30 new works the Tanglewood Music Center commissioned to celebrate its 75th-anniversary season, his first impulse, according to a program note distributed at a concert by the TMC Orchestra on Monday evening, was to respond with a “a little ‘greeting piece’ . . . like a postcard.”

What resulted instead was “Sign of the Leviathan,” a melancholy 12-minute work for solo French horn and string orchestra that he nonetheless characterized in an onstage interview as a celebration of music and friends, and a response to the overwhelming emotions he felt at the prospect of returning to Tanglewood. Golijov was a fellow at the center in 1990, only a few years after moving to the United States from his native Argentina.

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A MacArthur “genius” who has taught at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester since 1991, Golijov has durable ties to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to Tanglewood. And “Leviathan,” among the few new concert pieces he has presented in recent seasons, might shed some light on his next major work: Its germinal material, the program essay noted, emerged from a Euripides-based opera Golijov is writing for the Metropolitan Opera.

Eschewing the polyglot exuberance of his well-known works “La Pasión Según San Marcos” and “Ainadamar” (part of which will feature on an Aug. 2 TMC concert), Golijov instead offers a somber meditation inspired by the biblical sea monster of his title. Suspended in a slow-bobbing 6/8 tide, the soloist — here, BSO principal horn James Sommerville — conjures the beast’s song as well as the foghorns of its seafaring milieu. Strings evoke waves that lap, swell, and splash, even as their unanimity of timbre underlines the protagonist’s isolation.

On paper, Golijov’s poetic intent is evident; in practice, the music felt unsettled despite Sommerville’s confident navigation at his instrument’s outer bounds and the conductor Stefan Asbury’s expert hand at the rudder. A qualified success, then, and a piece whose expressive arc will sound more certain in repeat engagements.

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The rest of the program showed that the center’s orchestra is an ensemble to be reckoned with. The conductor Ludovic Morlot opened the concert with a stark, spacious rendition of Wagner’s “Parsifal” prelude, and ended with a performance of Debussy’s “Images” seductive in its lush textures and savory solo work.

Between those, and before the Golijov premiere, came the evening’s unanticipated highlight: an account of Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, commissioned by the BSO for its 50th anniversary in 1930, and played by the TMC Orchestra under the composer’s direction in 1940. The conductor Ruth Reinhardt rendered the dense music brilliantly lucid, and coaxed from its inexorable rhythms an irresistible sensation of swing.

TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER ORCHESTRA

James Sommerville, French-horn soloist

At: Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Monday


Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.