LENOX — Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become a Boston Symphony Orchestra last-concert tradition at Tanglewood — as indispensable as fireworks with the “1812 Overture,” picnics on the lawn, and post-concert traffic at the Monument. Last year, Andris Nelsons became the first sitting BSO music director since Erich Leinsdorf in 1969 to lead that season-ending “Ode to Joy,” a trend that should continue for years to come if Sunday’s performance was any indication.
A translucent, bittersweet rendition of Charles Ives’s “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” from “Three Places in New England” began the program. Diaphanous violins drifted above a nostalgic melody, and a brass tempest whipped up and died away just as quickly, a fit of musical-existential panic. A small moment, from a Berkshires summer much like this one over a hundred years ago, was plucked out of time and preserved in music.
The focus shifted from the local to the universal. Nelsons turned to the audience and offered thanks to the public and players alike, and called for brotherhood and peace in the spirit of the symphony. “Music goes beyond nationalities. It goes beyond any borders,” he said, provoking a wave of applause.
Nelsons was an enthusiastic magician on the podium, wielding his baton high, bridging the gap between form and the ineffable. The peaks and valleys of the music stood out in satisfying relief. Strong accents lent a dancing groove to the frenzied counterpoint of the mercurial second-movement scherzo, thunderclap timpani piercing the air. That amped-up energy palpably carried through to the idyllic middle section before calming, ready to resurge with even greater intensity.
The gentle Adagio was achingly lovely, the instruments sinking into some phrases and gliding over others. When the “Ode to Joy” theme arose for the first time near the beginning of the fourth movement, the basses and cellos were delicate and whisper-quiet, holding it out as a primal germ of an idea with no inklings of the triumphal march into which it would soon bloom.
Bass-baritone John Relyea’s entrance and solo were mighty and expressive, and tenor Russell Thomas’s voice and volume were much recovered from the previous night’s opera gala, when he had been battling a throat infection. Tamara Mumford’s liquid, graceful mezzo-soprano and BSO first-timer Katie Van Kooten’s silvery soprano nicely rounded out the soloists.
In any given performance of this symphony, those soloists may receive star billing, but the fourth movement truly belongs to the choir, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was on fire, singing from memory. The collected voices seemed powered by a divine spark, ascending high and lifting the audience along. When the music slowed and the chorus sang “Seid umschlungen” — “be embraced” — we didn’t just hear it, we felt it. It seemed Nelsons felt it, too; instead of finishing the summer with triumphant raised arms, he seemed to fall forward, bowing before the musicians.
Here’s to Berkshires summers, here’s to unity, here’s to joy.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Tanglewood, Lenox, Sunday afternoon.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.