Boston Symphony preview: Guest conductors rule at Tanglewood

Even though the Boston Symphony Orchestra has named Andris Nelsons as its next music director, the L
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra during Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary celebration last summer. He will take over as music director in 2014-15. (Hilary Scott)
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra during Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary celebration last summer. He will take over as music director in 2014-15. (Hilary Scott)

Even though the Boston Symphony Orchestra has named Andris Nelsons as its next music director, the Latvian-born conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony will not assume full duties until the 2014-15 Boston season. This summer, he will appear only once at Tanglewood, the spacious Berkshires estate where the BSO performs and teaches in summer.

So begins another post-James Levine Tanglewood season, relying on the experience and talent of guest conductors instead of looking to a music director. During each over-scheduled week, guest conductors — including Nelsons, who is a guest this summer — conduct Boston Symphony concerts and also coach and conduct young professionals who are fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. Levine, 70, stepped down because of injuries and ill health and “was a great loss,” said the orchestra’s artistic administrator, Anthony Fogg.

Nelsons, 34, is the 132-year-old orchestra’s youngest music director since the 19th century. His intelligence and enthusiastic energy are in place; time and thought should take care of the looseness of his big beat. The Verdi Requiem he is to lead July 27, honoring the bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, will star the outstanding Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which sings from memory. Nelsons’s wife, Kristine Opolais, is to be the soprano soloist.

Concerts in the 5,000-seat Koussevitzky Music Shed and the 1,000-seat Ozawa Hall (with their manicured lawns for picnicking and stargazing) currently are programmed by a management team of this musical headless horseman.

Gone are the days when Serge Koussevitzky, the visionary music director who founded Tanglewood 75 years ago, could introduce a contemporary work and repeat it on the spot. Evolving tastes and cold financial realities create a pull toward lucrative pop programs. (Vince Gill is the guest artist July 7.) It’s dangerous to risk straining the Shed audience’s tolerance — though Levine gambled, commissioning or performing works by Schoenberg, Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen. What Nelsons will do is to be seen.

Five pops concerts

So Boston Pops concerts now number not two or three as in the past, but five — plus “West Side Story” on July 13, when the re-mastered film will be shown with Leonard Bernstein’s score played live by the orchestra.

The opening concert on Friday July 5 is safely all Tchaikovsky, conducted by Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and featuring Joshua Bell in the violin concerto. The next night Fruhbeck leads Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 3, with Anne Sofie von Otter, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus women and the PALS Children’s Chorus. The Aug. 25 finale is, as always, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, this year under principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink.

Farthest from the safe-repertory zone is “The Goat Rodeo Show” Aug. 15, starring Yo-Yo Ma. “Goat Rodeo,” Fogg said, “is an expression for a chaotic situation, with people from separate orbits voicing different interpretations.”

This concert grew from a recording project with bassist Edgar Meyer and string players “from different musical orbits.” Like James Taylor (who is taking the summer off to record an album), Ma is such a favorite that this concert will draw crowds from several audience segments. These include neighbors, because Taylor and Ma have homes in the area, and Ma, who is to perform the Dvorak Cello Concerto on Aug. 4, is a faculty coach. (Both performers attend BSO concerts: Ma shakes many hands; Taylor, hatless, steals in when lights dim.)

Adventurous sounds are more often heard down the shaded path to Seiji Ozawa Hall, where guest ensembles appear. The ghost of the opera department that Levine was rebuilding will hover over small operas in concert versions. In 2000, Levine commissioned John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” for the Metropolitan Opera; Emmanuel Music, with which Harbison works closely in Boston, will perform it in concert on July 11, anticipating his 75th birthday.

In past pre-seasons, Mark Morris has brought young dancers from nearby Jacob’s Pillow to perform in chamber works played by fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. This summer the choreographer moves into center season without any dancers at all, directing a double bill of concert operas, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Britten’s “Curlew River,” on July 31 and again on Aug. 1.

Another opera to be heard in concert version is George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin,” introduced last summer at Aix-en-Provence and Covent Garden. Part of Tanglewood’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music, Aug. 8-12, it has already made its mark in Europe, Fogg said, with its strong story and powerful music drama. Excerpts from the steamy staged version are on YouTube.

Contemporary festival

As the Boston Symphony awaits the arrival of Nelsons, so does the Tanglewood Music Center, whose fellows, trained by orchestra members, perform most of the Contemporary Festival. This year’s coaches also include Harbison, Stephane Deneve and Michael Gandolfi. Its director is the formidable Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who will give a piano recital. Featured at the festival are works by Helmut Lachenmann and Marco Stroppo, whom Fogg described as “important European figures who can open the door to new worlds.”

Carter, whose work will also be presented, was a significant Tanglewood figure who attended every Contemporary Festival. Most composers don’t live past 80, but Carter — before he died last winter at the age of 103 — composed some 90 works after turning 80, and bowed from the stage at premieres.

Deneve, rumored to have been considered for the position of music director, will surely ace Poulenc’s Stabat Mater on Aug. 2 — as he does all things French. Vladimir Jurowski, a solid musician whose Tanglewood debut is July 19, brings another highlight: a meaty program of Wagner, Liszt, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in Mahler’s orchestration.

Concert specifics are online at For information, call 413-637-1600, or for tickets, 888-266-1200.

Writer and music critic Leslie Kandell covers Tanglewood for The Gazette.

BSO at Tanglewood

July 5: All-Tchaikovsky. Joshua Bell, violin; Rafael Fruhbeck de Bargos, conductor

July 6: Mahler. Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, conductor; Festival Chorus; PALS Children’s Chorus; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano

July 7: Boston Pops. Vince Gill; Keith Lockhart, conductor

July 12: Wagner, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov. Leon Fleisher, piano; Kazushi Ono, conductor

July 13: Bernstein “West Side Story.” David Newman, conductor

July 14: Stravinsky, Haydn, Beethoven. Lynn Harrell, cello; Rafael Fruhbeck de Bargos, conductor

July 19: Wagner, Liszt, Brahms. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

July 20: Wagner “Die Walkure” Act 3. Lothar Koenigs, conductor; baritone Bryn Terfel

July 26: All-Mozart. Christine Schafer, soprano; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor and piano

July 27: Verdi Requiem. Andris Nelsons, conductor; Festival Chorus.

July 28: Dvorak, Prokofiev. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

Aug. 2: Strauss, Beethoven, Poulenc. Stephane Deneve, conductor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Lucy Crowe, soprano

Aug. 3: Ravel, Beethoven. Charles Dutoit, conductor; Lang Lang piano

Aug. 4: Stravinsky, Dvorak. Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Charles Dutoit, conductor

Aug. 6: Tanglewood on Parade. Borodin, Gershwin, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky. fireworks

Aug. 8-12: Festival of Contemporary Music. Carter, Stroppa, Lachenmann, Mason, Reich, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Benjamin

Aug. 9: Sibelius, Brahms. Gil Shaham, violin; Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor

Aug. 10: Carter, Beethoven, Brahms. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor

Aug. 11: All-Beethoven. Christian Zacharias, conductor and piano.

Aug. 16: Boston Pops. Michael Feinstein and friends. Keith Lockhart, conductor

Aug. 17: Mozart, Mahler. Bernard Haitink, conductor; Isabelle Faust, violin; Camilla Tilling, soprano

Aug. 18: Bernstein Memorial Concert. Mozart, Mahler. Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Emanuel Ax, piano; Christoph von Dohnanyi, conductor

Aug. 23: Poulenc, Stravinsky, Beethoven. Peter Serkin, piano; Andris Poga, conductor

Aug. 24: John Williams’ Film Night. Boston Pops. Audra McDonald, soprano

Aug. 25: Beethoven. Bernard Haitink, conductor; Tanglewood Festival Chorus; Erin Wall, soprano

Sept. 1: Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. Thomas Wilkins, conductor

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