LENOX — Sunday’s season-closing Boston Symphony Orchestra performance at Tanglewood was a heartening occasion for those who believe in the increasingly old-fashioned notion that, even in an era of jet-set maestros, a music director should still strive for the deepest possible connection to his own orchestra and the community it serves. Sometimes even just showing up sets you apart.
Ask your typical Tanglewood concertgoer, for instance, how important the annual final performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is to them, and they’ll tell you it stands somewhere near the heart of the Tanglewood experience. And yet, despite this fact, recent BSO music directors have not made it a priority. The last time a summer-ending Beethoven’s Ninth was led by a BSO music director was almost half a century ago — under Erich Leinsdorf in 1969.
What a nice surprise it was then, that when Christoph von Dohnányi was forced to withdraw from the Ninth this summer, Andris Nelsons himself stepped in to take his place. As an institutional leader, one of Nelsons’s most striking qualities has been his endearingly Slavic passion for attempting to shape the BSO’s loosely defined musical public into something resembling a coherent cultural community — one that is on some kind of shared listening journey with its orchestra. On Sunday Nelsons once again addressed the audience in this vein, speaking from the stage about the meaning of Beethoven’s Ninth and sharing the news that he will in fact be expanding his commitment to Tanglewood next summer, leading programs during both the first two weeks and the last two weeks of the season.
This commitment brings his Tanglewood involvement, at least as measured in weeks of participation, to a place comparable with that of James Levine and Seiji Ozawa at their most engaged. This augurs well for the BSO, and is presumably linked in some way to Nelsons’s decision to cut, or at least loosen, ties to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. (It’s also hard not to wonder whether the as-yet-unnamed concert opera Nelsons intends to lead at Tanglewood next summer will in fact be “Parsifal,” the very work he won’t be leading at Bayreuth.)
Then the music came. That Nelsons knows how to conduct an exciting Beethoven Ninth was probably not a surprise to many in Sunday’s packed audience. The opening movements had a rough-hewn charm and visceral rhythmic drive, and the third movement was delivered with a supplicatory tenderness, a sense of a composer’s address being directed not outward but upward. Then, when the strings introduced the famous “Joy” theme of the finale, Nelsons brought them in at a barely audible whisper, an effect that seemed to shrink the massive Shed to a fraction of its size, and of course also maximized the contrast with the subsequent choral climaxes. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus dispatched those big choral moments with unforced strength and collective charisma. The soloists — Rachel Willis-Sorensen, Ruxandra Donose, Joseph Kaiser, and Wilhelm Schwinghammer — also acquitted themselves well. The applause went on and on.
Earlier, Nelsons had opened the concert with a calmly atmospheric rendition of Copland’s “Quiet City,” featuring Thomas Rolfs (trumpet) and Robert Sheena (English horn) as the eloquent soloists. As it turns out, Charles Munch chose a pairing of exactly these same two works for his final concert as music director in 1962. The difference was, of course, that Copland back then was a living composer. This piece, written in 1940, might still have been regarded as new music.
As Nelsons deepens his ties to Tanglewood, and seemingly to the BSO as a whole, let’s hope he finds ways to translate his increasing quantities of good will in the community into truly visionary leadership in the area of contemporary music. As Munch himself once said, “Music to exist must be played — and who is to play it if we do not?”
On Saturday night, Michael Stern presided over a program that featured cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a warmly involving account of Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto as well as several works by John Williams. The night also began with Bernstein’s Suite from “On the Waterfront” and ended with Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The latter score’s arboreal theme seemed right on point for Tanglewood, even if this performance — let’s call it the Pines of Lenox — included a surprise obligato part for offstage car alarm. (It didn’t last long.)
Respighi’s work also features snippets of recorded bird song, an effect that often seems kitschy. But on Saturday night, it also felt humorously redundant, like bringing a recording of ocean waves with you to the beach.
The musical charms of Tanglewood have always been inseparable from its bucolic beauty. The Shed is defined by its lack of walls. Or to put it another way: Here, nature itself is the ultimate concert hall.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At: Tanglewood, Saturday and Sunday