Hard-news bulletins that start with, “This just in” pre-empt musical commentary every time, and so it was last week at Tanglewood. James Levine, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director, was taken away for kidney surgery and will be gone for the rest of the season.
While the Berkshires music community and Tanglewood Music Center students coped with the shock of abruptly losing a visionary conductor, orchestra administrators scrambled to find quick replacements. The stakes are high at a time when cultural attractions struggle to retain audiences diminished by transportation and ticket costs.
To initiate “The star is sick, you’re on, kid” scheduling mode, management called on Levine’s two assistant conductors, who attend every rehearsal and performance, score in hand, and know his every musical move and wish. Sunday’s reduced-orchestra concert of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Schubert — the only one Levine was to have conducted last weekend — was led by Canadian-born Julian Kuerti, a 2005 fellow in the Tanglewood Music Center. (The other assistant, Shi-Yeon Sung, was already scheduled for her annual Lenox concert next week.)
Young and blessed
Kuerti, the 31-year-old son of the pianist Anton Kuerti, who stepped in for the ailing soloist Leon Fleisher at Julian’s Boston Symphony debut last March, was blessed with a sunny afternoon and a program that, as one concertgoer observed, was “what the people want to hear, with tunes.”
He was also lucky in Sunday’s pianist, Peter Serkin — son of the legendary Rudolf Serkin and one of the great artists of his own generation. On a concert grand, Serkin played concertos by the mature Bach and the teenage Mozart: Respectively meaty and lightweight.
The concert opened with Haydn’s final symphony, No. 104, the “London.” The stodgy reading of the first movement must be excused, as a young man in a hot spot wouldn’t take any chances. The slow movement didn’t suffer from a quicker tempo than usual, but speed sacrificed the earthy Menuet’s rhythmic surprises. Never mind: once Serkin sat down to the Bach and Mozart, all was well.
Friday’s program (Harbison and Mahler), planned for Levine, is to be led by Leonard Slatkin, who is also next Saturday’s conductor. But if the orchestra’s troubles and changes become too much, there’s comfort in tonight’s 8 o’clock concert by Barbara Cook, who is Barbara Cook, now and forever.
Last Friday and Saturday had already been planned for principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink, so no changes were required. This Dutchman may not fly, but he can sure get a concert off the ground. Friday’s all-Beethoven program was civilized, sweet and in crisply classical style.
The Triple Concerto, for piano, violin and cello makes up in length what it lacks in greatness. The eminently listenable violinist Julia Fischer — German, as is the passionate cellist Daniel Muller-Schott — made an engaging young threesome with him and the bouncy, nerdy American pianist Jonathan Biss. (The three are to perform chamber music together Wednesday.)
Similarly deft in the “Pastoral” Symphony, No. 6, Haitink was suave and controlled, with the winds in sweet shape.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, rehearsing with its founder and director, John Oliver, and performing with the orchestra year-round, is so good by now that it can show off early in the summer. It opened the weekend with a virtuosic Prelude program Friday — all 20th-century, all appealing and, sadly, without precious word sheets, which were surely around somewhere.
The chorus then joined Haitink and the orchestra Saturday in a taut, absolutely thrilling performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” Everywhere the mind looked, a live thing was going on: section unity, phrasing, suspense, dynamics, drama, dissonant pull. The majestic, mysterious opening did not wallow, and the second movement gently danced from grace to power. Horn solos floated through etched woodwind tone, little offstage ensembles stayed perfectly in sync with the onstage orchestra and sumptuous harp swoops contrasted with doggedly rhythmic string marches.
Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, soloist in this piece here two years ago, and Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn seemed to use the solid, affirmative choral singing to launch their duets.
Haitink didn’t appear to be doing anything unusual, but to these veteran ears this piece never sounded better — maybe (a thought whispers) never as good. Who knew it could be like this? Why can’t it always be?