Boston Symphony mixes contemporary, traditional at Tanglewood

The annual Festival of Contemporary Music dominates the Tanglewood weekend.

For one weekend each summer, Tanglewood’s personality splits. While the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs classical standards in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, the Festival of Contemporary Music roils around the other end of the property, in Ozawa Hall. This time, though, that split looked a lot smaller.

Forty years ago, the five-day Festival of Contemporary Music introduced works that emerging composers at the Tanglewood Music Center — whose instrumental fellows still play the performances — produced during their summer stay. But a full third of the works in this season’s seven concerts from Thursday through tonight were from the last century, without a single world premiere.

Meanwhile, the full orchestra, whose weekend Shed programs usually give a nod to new music with some token piece approaching 100 years old, performed Saturday’s premiere of “Music for Boston,” commissioned from Andre Previn. In addition, orchestra members in Friday’s chamber music Prelude played two recent Previn pieces and one by John Harbison, both of whom were in attendance. (Not to mention last Sunday’s orchestra premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s short, exuberant “Night Train to Perugia.”)

So for this festival the customary divide between venues narrowed. Since the Boston Symphony is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood concerts, the new works could be construed as honoring a practice of Serge Koussevitzky, its music director from 1924 until 1949, who frequently commissioned works; if the audience was unreceptive, he would repeat the piece on the spot.

Friday evening’s concert revived another bygone Tanglewood tradition: the all-Bach concert. In the years when the season was only six weeks long, its first weekend was devoted to Bach, the second to Mozart, and the remaining four to large-orchestra works.

On Friday, a small Baroque-style orchestra of strings and harpsichord led from the violin (erratically) by Pinchas Zukerman, played what seemed like Bach Pops: well-known concertos including the third and fifth Brandenburgs. The program amounted to an in-house showcase, as principal players took turns joining Zukerman for concerto solos — Malcolm Lowe on violin, John Ferrillo on oboe (lured from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra by former music director James Levine) and Elizabeth Rowe on flute. They were terrific, and did honor to the orchestra.

Humid weather that plagues stringed instruments took on a major role: a reminder that this repertory was never composed for an expansive semi-outdoor setting. Tanglewood’s early Bach concerts took place in the enclosed Theater-Concert Hall, and even that was no peach. Listening to — or for — the harpsichord, played by Aston Magna Festival veteran John Gibbons, one could imagine what the damp tone-blocking air would do to fragile gut stings of period instruments.

The players’ calm but total involvement suggested that this music was what had drawn them to learn their instruments. Heartfelt applause from an audience who knows not only the music but the players, many of whom are summer neighbors, was thick and steady.

Saturday night, the French-born conductor Stéphane Denève, who had stepped in for Levine at Carnegie Hall in March, introduced the Previn piece, which wanted to be likeable but sounded like too many other composers. (Overheard exchange: “Is that a pastiche?” “No, it’s a hodgepodge.”) But when Yo-Yo Ma (the James Taylor of classical music) played Elgar’s cello concerto, out came sweat and drama with eloquent soft tones and rich tunes. Denève then repeated Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which he had led in New York, and if brass phrasing and group entrances were less orderly than the earlier performance, the full unisons were still stirring.

Over at Ozawa Hall, extra concerts Thursday through tonight focused on living British and American composers. Oliver Knussen, the well-liked English composer and teacher who headed the five-day festival from 1986 to 1994, returned this year. His 2010 “Ophelia’s Last Dance,” with languid Chopinesque melodies and filagree passagework, was a highlight of a Saturday afternoon recital by the formidable Los Angeles pianist Gloria Cheng. Another was Harbison’s 2009 “Leonard Stein Anagrams,” a series of 13 crystal-clear elegant miniatures based on words one could make from the name of his late colleague and friend. (“Learns to dine?” “Tender as a lion”? Try it.)

Sunday night’s concert performance of his one-act opera, the 1985 “Higglety-Pigglety-Pop!,” inspired by the Maurice Sendak picture book, was a festival feature. (It’s all that remains of the opera program Levine was striving to rebuild.) It finished too late for review, but the Tanglewood Music Center and soloists give their all for this festival, so let’s assume they did.

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