LENOX — With its call for hundreds of performers, and its vast vision of spiritual apotheosis, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a work that convenes its own occasion — and always has. Tales of its celebrated Munich premiere in 1910 — with a glittering audience of musical, literary, and political royalty from across the continent — make that event feel in retrospect like the grandest of farewells to Europe’s long 19th century, with Mahler’s death and the outbreak of the First World War following closely on its heels.
On Saturday night in Lenox, Mahler’s choral masterwork rang out once more deep into the Berkshire hills. The Boston Symphony Orchestra had last turned to the Eighth in the 2004-05 season to inaugurate the tenure of music director James Levine. This weekend’s performance was conceived in tribute to the Tanglewood Music Center’s 75th anniversary. Andris Nelsons was on the podium, leading some 330 performers including the instrumentalists of the TMC Orchestra and the singers of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Chorus, and the American Boychoir.
The night was a rousing success. The performance seemed to stretch the TMC Orchestra to its limits but it responded with committed playing that, despite some rough edges — for an ensemble formed only this summer, in which most players were encountering this work for the first time — can only be admired. The gathered vocal forces sang with fervor and stamina in equal measure. At climactic moments, waves of unamplified sound washed over the Shed with an elemental force. Nelsons was careful, however, to pace those climaxes smartly, and to make this performance about much more than the full bore of choral sound.
The Eighth is structured in two parts, the first a setting of the Christian hymn “Veni, creator spiritus” and the second devoted to the final scene from Goethe’s “Faust.” On Saturday night, Nelsons took command of Part 1 with a propulsive tempo that never sagged, while at the same time, he found space to bring out important details of orchestration.
Part 1 contains just over 20 minutes of music, and Nelsons, like Levine before him, chose to break for an intermission after its blazing conclusion. It’s a debatable choice and whatever reasons dictated it, practical or otherwise, on Saturday night the effect was to disperse the gathered intensity of the moment. It’s an awkward jump cut, from Mahlerian ecstasy to intermission small talk. When the performance resumed, it took some time to regain its sense of electricity.
But regain it did, and Part 2 offered pleasures big and small, among them the quiet radiance of the choral sound at the words “Heiligen Liebeshort” (“Love’s holy hermitage”); Klaus Florian Vogt’s sweet-toned tenor suggesting Doctor Marianus incarnate; and the fervent vocalism of sopranos Erin Wall and Christine Goerke, both of whom found a way to crest above the massive orchestra and chorus behind them.
The lineup of fine vocal soloists also included Matthias Goerne, Ain Anger, Jane Henschel, Mihoko Fujimura, and Erin Morley, whose pure voice floated from the rafters as the Mater Gloriosa. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus brought a strong anchoring presence to the choral ranks but the singers of the BUTI chorus and the American Boychoir also turned in robust performances, honoring at one point in Part 2 a request Mahler made of his children’s chorus in Munich: that they enter “like a knife through butter.”
In a welcome experiment, the BSO simulcast the video feed from the Tanglewood lawn to large screens in Copley Square. An orchestra spokesman said around 1,000 people attended.
Seeing Nelsons at the heart of this TMC celebration raised the question once more of how he will define his role at, and commitment to, the school over the length of his recently extended tenure. Saturday’s performance, at the very least, made it clear how much future classes of fellows stand to gain in working with him.
The following afternoon, it was the BSO back at center stage, with Charles Dutoit presiding over a crowd-friendly program that opened with a sharply drawn account of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” one that featured winsome solos by flutist Elizabeth Ostling and clarinetist William Hudgins. Robert Sheena’s affecting English horn work earned him a well-deserved first bow following the resplendent rendition of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” that closed the program. The BSO’s tradition with this work runs deep and Dutoit knows how to tap it.
In between, the violinist Joshua Bell made his annual Tanglewood appearance, this time as soloist in Glazunov’s Violin Concerto. It was nice to hear Bell taking up a score less commonly heard, and his playing boasted its customary warmth and tonal richness.
Some soloists fold their personalities into the work at hand as if to animate it from within. Bell belongs to a second camp who seem, whether intentionally or not, to inflect every work with their own image. So Sunday’s Glazunov, within minutes of its conclusion, seemed to blend in memory with many of his other Tanglewood exploits of recent years. This time, as in the past, Sunday’s audience voiced its hearty approval.
TANGLEWOOD MUSIC CENTER ORCHESTRA + BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, Charles Dutoit conductors
At: Tanglewood, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.