LENOX — Better late than never!
Six summers ago, Andris Nelsons was scheduled to conduct Verdi’s tremendous Requiem Mass at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed, in what was to have been his first concert as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director-elect. However, after he sustained a concussion in Germany thanks to an unfortunate run-in with a door, Carlo Montanaro stepped in to conduct at Tanglewood, and audiences waited till autumn at Symphony Hall to see the buzzy young maestro conduct a different program.
And now that we’ve finally heard how Nelsons drives the Requiem, I’m ready to hear him do it again. The 1874 piece invites conductors to explore a full spectrum of dynamics and moods — Marin Alsop once called it “a conductor’s dream come true” — and Nelsons shook the Shed with that all-encompassing approach at the Tanglewood gala concert on Saturday evening.
Ethereal shades colored the introductory “Requiem,” the “Dies irae” landed with hurricane force, and the rest covered the vast range in between. The most hushed passages would have sounded marvelous at Symphony Hall, but they needed to be just a little louder in the Shed to compensate for the open spaces, the dusk choir of birds, and the inescapable ringing cellphones.
Hopefully we will hear it at Symphony Hall. Nelsons’s operatic acumen clearly informed his leadership of the Requiem, which sometimes seems like it needs a musically gifted octopus to conduct and cue. Nearly everything was in its right place, from the cellos’ exposed free-fall run in the “Offertorio” to the antiphonal Judgment Day trumpets and pounding bass and kettle drums in the “Dies irae.” Aside from a brief stumble in the tricky double chorus “Sanctus,” the Tanglewood Festival Chorus deftly ran the piece’s vocal gantlet, uniformly turning out crisper phrases and a more solid sound than was heard in recent performances.
Soprano Kristine Opolais (a frequent BSO guest and Nelsons’s ex-wife) funneled spiritual pathos into her solos, which culminated in the stunning “Libera me.” When she reached for high notes, she tended to make a stop or two along the way, but given the supplicating feel of the piece, this lent her performance a sincere affect.
Nelsons seemed to tailor the orchestra to Opolais’s voice whenever she was singing. Mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova handled her own solos with elegance, but her vocal wattage didn’t match Opolais, and when the two women sang together with the orchestra, Volkova’s lower voice all but vanished. (Aside: the same thing happened to mezzo Violeta Urmana when Opolais sang “Suor Angelica” in concert at Symphony Hall in the spring, so this may be a recurring conundrum that needs to be ironed out.)
The two male soloists’ rising stars only ascended further with this performance. Tenor Jonathan Tetelman’s “Ingemisco” rang with vitality and a hint of rawness, and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green’s powerful, trembling “Mors stupebit” was an outstanding moment among moments.
Aaron Copland was a formative leader for the nascent Tanglewood Music Center, and his name has become nearly synonymous with the BSO’s summer home. In recent years, few seasons have passed without hearing at least a “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Friday evening’s concert did one better than that, starting off on “Quiet City” and concluding with the composer’s Third Symphony.
In “Quiet City,” the strings evoked a foggy, twilit urban landscape — open, yet somehow claustrophobic — where a solo trumpet and English horn wander through their own restive soliloquies. The BSO had the perfect people for that job in Thomas Rolfs and Robert Sheena, who colored their solos with notes of anxiety, loneliness, and love.
With the Third Symphony on the same program, attention was drawn to Copland’s introspective side, which sometimes fades in the light of “Lincoln Portrait” and “Appalachian Spring.” The symphony’s third movement sounded like it could have been a sequel to “Quiet City,” with its similar string sound, wind solos musing out loud, and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s violin and Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo melding to make an eerie, otherworldly sound as they ascended to their highest notes.
Nelsons seems to be growing into this symphony. Friday’s performance was more airtight and confident than this February’s Symphony Hall outing. Trouble spots in the first movement had been tidied up, and the fourth movement’s orchestral fantasy on “Fanfare for the Common Man” brought in the thunder. However, the second movement scherzo didn’t match the rest for clarity or energy, and Nelsons’s conservative tempo dragged it down.
The Copland pieces were split by Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, featuring Jan Lisiecki in his Tanglewood debut. At 24, the Canadian-Polish pianist is roughly the same age as Grieg was when he composed the piece, and his gleeful intensity at the keyboard was a delight to behold. His huge hands slalomed through tangled themes and percussive Norwegian dances.
The pianist could’ve been more judicious with rubato around Grieg’s crashing chords, especially in the first movement cadenza. Whenever he laid it on too thick, the music lost momentum that never returned quickly enough. On the other hand, his treatment of the dreamy slow movement was pure bliss. With his nimble, unhurried phrases and perfectly shaped trills sounding above the calm surface of the orchestra, it felt like hearing it for the first time.
As an encore, he chose Schumann’s “Träumerei,” which was barely audible even in the first section. Everything needs to be just a little louder in the Shed.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
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.