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Music Review

At Tanglewood, balletic Bernstein and a John Williams premiere

Boston Ballet members Patric Palkens, Paul Craig, and Isaac Akiba perform Leonard Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” at Tanglewood on Saturday night.Hilary Scott

LENOX — The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing summer-long tribute to Leonard Bernstein has focused largely, though not exclusively, on the stage works, beginning the first weekend of the Tanglewood season with a memorably exuberant, Keith Lockhart-led performance of “On the Town.”

Since then many other points of arrival from across Bernstein’s compositional journey have been sampled, including his ambitious late opera “A Quiet Place.” But on Saturday night at Tanglewood, the BSO returned to the composer’s early years with a fully staged performance of the ebullient ballet “Fancy Free,” an event that occasioned the orchestra’s first-ever collaboration with Boston Ballet.

“Fancy Free,” with choreography by a very young Jerome Robbins, is about three sailors looking for love while on shore leave in New York City. It would later provide the kernel that became “On the Town,” but before it morphed into a full-fledged musical, “Fancy Free” caused its own sensation, receiving no fewer than 24 curtain calls at its April 1944 premiere. According to Bernstein biographer Allen Shawn, “Robbins was so stunned by the response that Agnes de Mille had to cradle him in her arms backstage.” For Bernstein, it was in many ways the beginning of his career beyond the concert hall.

Saturday’s performance had the feel of a special occasion thanks to the dazzling work of the Boston Ballet ensemble (Patric Palkens, Isaac Akiba, and Paul Craig were the sailors; Maria Alvarez, Kathleen Breen Combes, and Dawn Atkins were the passers-by). They made viscerally present the myriad ways in which Robbins’s choreography draws from the popular dances of the day yet also transmutes and reimagines them through a sensibility as fresh as Bernstein’s own limpid and rhythmically subtle score. Andris Nelsons’s direction was perhaps more efficient than inspired, but the BSO gave the score a deluxe reading, and the performance was easily a highlight of the weekend.


The second half of Saturday’s all-Bernstein program had a somewhat more perfunctory feel to it as the summer’s Bernstein survey arrived at the composer’s “Divertimento” of 1980, written in response to a BSO commission to honor the orchestra’s own centenary. The piece is made up of eight short movements, which on their own terms are not lacking in charm, dry humor, or autobiographical resonance, yet taken as a whole, at least on this occasion, they did not add up to much more than the sum of their parts. The night ended with Bernstein’s “Serenade,” a violin concerto in all but name, inspired by Plato’s “Symposium.” The Latvian violinist Baiba Skride conjured an appealingly silvery tone that worked to striking effect in the score’s movement devoted to Agathon’s speech, but overall her performance lacked the heat and sheer conviction necessary to consistently lift this music beyond the realm of the decorative.


From left: Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Jessica Zhou, and Andris Nelsons after the world premiere of Williams’s “Highwood’s Ghost,” a tribute to Bernstein, at Tanglewood on Sunday.Hilary Scott

On Sunday afternoon the Tanglewood lawn was packed, whether thanks to the postcard-perfect weather, the presence of Yo-Yo Ma, or most likely some combination of both. Onstage was the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, giving its penultimate performance of the summer, again under Nelsons’s baton. The occasion also marked the unveiling of “Highwood’s Ghost,” a freshly commissioned Bernstein tribute work by John Williams, written for the orchestra with Ma and principal harpist Jessica Zhou as soloists.

Williams’s title alludes playfully to long-circulating rumors about paranormal activity at Highwood, a manor house that presides over a picturesque hilltop somewhere between the Koussevitzky Music Shed and Ozawa Hall. The piece itself blends a screen veteran’s cinematically vivid sense of atmosphere with the kind of careful craftsmanship Williams has long displayed in his less well-known but prodigious writing for the concert hall. Zhou’s gracefully dispatched early entrances arrived as if carried in on the wind. And as the piece progressed, the two soloists engaged in a kind of agitated dialogue, with Ma taking up the role of an increasingly emphatic interlocutor while the orchestra played a smaller supporting role. Presumably some kind of accord with spirits past is ultimately found, as the work ends calmly, with the music disappearing into a poised silence that Nelsons drew out at great length.


Sunday’s program — which also featured a vividly profiled reading of Copland’s “Outdoor Overture” and an interpretively blurry account of Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” — had the TMCO sounding formidable. But it was the afternoon’s rarity — Bernstein’s Three Meditations for Cello and Orchestra, adapted from the composer’s “Mass” — that perhaps left the strongest impression. Ma was once again the soloist, and his playing blended fervor, eloquence, and insight to a degree that transported the afternoon onto a different plane entirely. In playing like this the past is always present. No ghosts required.


At Tanglewood, Aug. 18 and 19

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.