LENOX — For once, he gave the upward flick but nobody listened.
After nearly every performance of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, its founding conductor John Oliver takes the stage and, with a single swift upward motion of his hands, beckons the enormous chorus to its feet. That there always ensues a subsequent leap in the volume of the applause is the most direct testament to how prized this chorus has been, through the decades, to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its public.
On Sunday afternoon in the Shed, after a robustly sung performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Oliver took the stage one last time, gave the sign, and then watched as every member of this enormous chorus declined to stand. Instead, they simply joined in the applause of the orchestra and audience honoring Oliver as he steps down after 45 years of service and some 2,000 concerts with the BSO and the Pops.
Just prior to Sunday’s Beethoven, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe presented Oliver with the recently created Tanglewood Medal, given to just one other recipient, Seiji Ozawa. It was well-deserved recognition for a conductor who, working tirelessly and often far from public view, has built up this volunteer chorus from scratch into the acclaimed and widely accomplished ensemble that it is today.
The weather on Sunday cooperated with the ceremonies, and this performance of the Ninth played out under nearly cloudless skies.
Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” does not specifically address the picnicking millions embraced by an endless green lawn, but it may as well, so inseparable has Tanglewood’s closing weekend become from this ritual performance. Under Asher Fisch’s baton, the BSO delivered an honorable and loose-jointed account that was not the last word in transparency or craft but nonetheless conveyed this music’s essential thrust and bounty. Bass-baritone John Relyea stood out among the vocal soloists, delivering the famous line, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” with an avuncular grandeur. The other capable vocal soloists were Julianna Di Giacomo, Renée Tatum, and Paul Groves. And, as one might expect, the TFC outdid itself, making the final movement the event that people had come for.
Sunday’s Beethoven was preceded by a Copland rarity, the “Symphonic Ode,” given a broadly powerful and persuasive reading by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in one last hurrah for the TMC’s 75th anniversary season. This early work is pre-populist Copland — we find the composer’s gifts distilled but not yet channeled into the guise that would find the widest favor through his landmark scores of the 1940s. Those latter scores, however, may not be as far away from the “Ode” as they initially seem. One particular passage on Sunday called to mind the rhythmic gearwork and future exuberance of “Appalachian Spring,” without the overlay of nostalgia and mountain mist.
While Fisch presided over Sunday’s program, the weekend’s first two concerts were occasions for Andris Nelsons and the orchestra to warm up its tour repertoire before departing this week for performances in eight European cities. Friday’s concert was anchored by Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, in an account that felt more sonically secure, musically focused, and over all, more deeply realized than Nelsons’s initial outing with this score earlier this season in Symphony Hall. Saturday’s nods to the upcoming tour included Barber’s “Second Essay for Orchestra” and Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben.”
With all its sturdy midcentury lyricism, the Barber is more outwardly ingratiating than Copland’s “Ode” (even if it may not have aged as well). Still, Nelsons and the orchestra gave it a burnished and involving performance, with by turns woodwinds chattering and brass aglow. It was the Strauss, however, that occasioned the most heated and outstanding playing of the weekend, with the strings sounding particularly full and muscular under Nelsons’s baton. As concertmaster, Lowe rendered his many solos here with an appealing combination of vigor and elegance.
Both nights under Nelsons featured soloists. On Saturday it was his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, who was in lustrous voice for a selection from Boito’s “Mefistofele” as well as both the Willow Song and “Ave Maria” from Act IV of Verdi’s “Otello.” Between them came an opulently shaped Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”
Friday’s soloist was the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who delivered a revelatory account of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. You would think that fresh takes on such a warhorse would be hard to find — and they are. But Tetzlaff drew out new dimensions of this score through the twinned specificity and freedom of his phrasing, the daringly wide range of his dynamics, and the chamber music-like vision he brought to the finale. Nelsons and the orchestra were with him every step of the way.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons and Asher Fisch, conductors
At: Tanglewood, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday