The Boston Symphony Orchestra began its 76th Tanglewood season with a dramatic mix of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Pops and heavy weather. Fans (the kind for waving in muggy air) were in evidence at Friday and Saturday’s classical concerts in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, while cooling thunderstorms delayed Sunday afternoon’s Pops concert for 40 minutes, necessitating an amended program.
Friday’s all-Tchaikovsky concert had star performers including James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma, but that was just in the audience. Onstage, Joshua Bell, now in his mid-40s and music director of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, showed that he still has time to practice. In the Violin Concerto, his delivery was as rich and forthright as when he first wowed the Tanglewood audience 25 years ago. (Even stronger, maybe.)
Last month, the Boston Symphony appointed its next music director, Andris Nelsons, who is to make a single appearance July 27. Since the lamented departure of James Levine in 2010, a chief filler of the director gap has been the Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who is liked and respected by colleagues at every level.
Some who were slow to convert have come to appreciate his knowledge, and how his music has been particularly fruitful. Friday’s concert, which included the Symphony No. 5, and Saturday’s, Mahler’s mammoth Symphony No. 3, showed stunning attacks and controlled phrase building. As he recovers from back surgery he had in 2011, Fruhbeck, turning 80 and conducting from a swivel chair, looks small and ill, but has inner power that elicits orchestral strength and precision.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which made up Saturday’s entire program, is part luxury glut and part endurance test. The longest piece in the standard repertory, it has marches, dances, religious outpourings, tributes to nature, offstage brass solos, offstage drum solos, a mezzo-soprano, a women’s chorus and a children’s chorus. It usually runs at least 90 minutes, perhaps even up to 100, and is performed without intermission.
Saturday’s rendition was 105 minutes long, during which one embarrassed female chorister and two of the boys slipped off the stage, overtaken by the close, sticky heat. The audience had no such trouble, probably because it was so much smaller than Friday’s, both in the Shed and on the lawn, not to mention the parking lots.
But Fruhbeck, who stands for only a few minutes at a time, survived it, sitting and standing, riding its waves of fatty melodies and revealing its thoughtful pauses and sudden changes of volume. The tone of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter was melting in her solo with the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who sang without score, as usual. The high tones of the PALS Children’s Chorus rang like the bells of heaven. The audience, which on Friday had begun to scurry out after the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, stayed to cheer.
Sunday afternoon’s Boston Pops concert, led by Keith Lockhart, was unusual in its presence on opening weekend, and its inclusion in the classical program booklet. Possibly because of the large audience Pops attracts, management hoped to pull in some of the revenue it knew it would lose in its noble Mahler effort. Also unusual was the 40-minute delay caused by a mercifully cooling spectacular downpour and thunderstorm that weather forecasts had called “an isolated shower.”
The waterfalls cascading off the Shed roof were a reminder of the original rained-out concert in 1937 that gave momentum to the fundraising for the Shed. Even after the concert began, there was activity as listeners moved in from the lawn and back out, and those marooned in cars arrived late, stumbling across others to their seats.
The Western-themed program’s cowboy-type selections by Copland (“Rodeo”), John Williams (“‘Cowboys’ Overture”) and Tiomkin (from “The Alamo”) were followed by country singer Vince Gill. His songs, on this occasion, did not measure up in interest to the Pops music, particularly the iconic Copland.
But by the end, the afternoon sun had begun to peek out, and the audience was enjoying the long-awaited freshened air.
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