LENOX — “It’s hard not to be in a good mood at Tanglewood, even if the world is a mess,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright during her lecture on Saturday afternoon at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, presented by the new Tanglewood Learning Institute. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the pines can feel like a world in a bubble, insulated from the cares of the universe outside. The orchestra is the same as the one at home, but the environment is radically different. The grass is greener, the air cleaner, and the music never seems to stop. One doesn’t see many solo concert-goers there, unlike at Symphony Hall. In this place designed for togetherness, it’s easy to forget what’s happening outside.
The BSO’s first concert of the summer was blessed with the kind of evening one wishes they could bottle up; the weather was balmy and the lawn was dry, perfect for picnic blankets. The program was tried and true Tanglewood fare, with BSO music director Andris Nelsons conducting the first concert of his month-long residency, and frequent guest Emanuel Ax at the piano in the first of many appearances here this summer.
Mozart’s cheerful Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat is a classic Ax calling-card, which he’s performed many times with the BSO since 1980. Friday night, his playing was even-tempered, serene at its most energetic and sedate at its least. The slow second movement had the most spark. The final movement, a hunting song, more evoked a genteel tableau than a chase. The orchestra did its part to add dimension and contrast.
One standout of the most recent Symphony Hall season was Nelsons helming Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and Friday night’s concert showed the conductor was fully capable of a reprise. The symphony is a leviathan, clocking in at roughly 70 minutes, and the Shed stage was packed to the rafters. For each emotional peak the work offers, there are five more opportunities to get lost in the weeds. The fourth movement Adagietto is one of the most exquisitely crafted pieces in the standard repertoire, and if it’s not taken too slow, it’s practically bombproof — but to get there, one must navigate that overgrown monstrosity of a third movement, titled Scherzo but longer than any scherzo has a right to be.
There was no bushwhacking here; Nelsons’s path was clear. From the ritualistic funeral march to the frantic spirals of the second movement and the mercurial but often repetitive scherzo, Nelsons conducted as if he was directing an epic film. With the trajectory and role of each instrument-character accounted for, the performance struck the balance between the bigger picture and the devilish details.
Go ahead and nominate associate principal horn Richard Sebring for best actor; his many solos in the scherzo played out like dramatic monologues, and some steely phrases even recalled the cadences of human speech. When he transferred a long note to another horn player, it was always seamless. By the time the Adagietto arrived, the intensity had been amped up for so long that it was a wonderful relief to fall into the sound and float.
Saturday evening’s program was all-American without being all American, featuring music by a woman who was born here (Joan Tower), a man who arrived in this country as a young refugee (André Previn), and a fascinated foreigner (Antonin Dvořák.) A boisterous performance of Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” No. 1 by the BSO brass prefaced Previn’s BSO-commissioned Violin Concerto, “Anne-Sophie,” with its dedicatee Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist. Previn, who died in February at the age of 89, had a decades-long relationship with the BSO and Tanglewood, both conducting the orchestra and composing pieces for it on numerous occasions.
To the solo part, Mutter applied her usual chilly elegance and wry phrases with several dashes of sweetness. Behind her, the orchestra traded in lush cinematic fantasies, inquisitive wind and brass solos, and dark chromatic sequences. The piece sometimes rambles on longer than it needs to, but its most poignant moments stuck in the mind — a cadenza of keening double stops, a sustained final note that Mutter didn’t want to let go. As an encore, Nelsons conducted Mutter and the BSO in an orchestration of Previn’s “Song” from “Tango, Song and Dance,” which was also composed for Mutter.
A myth has long been spread that Dvořák somehow taught Americans how to write American music with his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” implying American composers were all trying to imitate Liszt and Wagner before the Bohemian genius somehow instructed them to listen to Negro spirituals. Untrue as that may be, the melody of the Largo second movement (which Dvořák’s student adapted into the quasi-spiritual “Goin’ Home”) feels as American as “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “I Got Rhythm.”
English hornist Robert Sheena shaped the tender tune with care. The orchestra’s phrasing in the whisper-quiet introduction was a bit shaggy, but the sections pulled together soon enough. The Scherzo was suitably fiery, and Nelsons dialed up the energy and tempo one further for the finale, which whipped up a storm of brass and strings. Not to be outdone, the clouds overhead unleashed a brief downpour as the crowds departed.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Tanglewood, Lenox. July 5 and 6.
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.