Life handed the Boston Symphony Orchestra a proverbial lemon when music director James Levine was abruptly whisked to New York City for kidney surgery. He is out for the season, but present at Tanglewood in ways other than the flesh, so performers and planners spent this weekend backpedaling, substituting and making the proverbial lemonade.
Levine’s audacious programs included, for starters, the premiere of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5, an orchestra commission almost midwifed by Levine, who suggested halfway along that Harbison add singers. Harbison then set poems on the Orpheus legend by Milosz, Louise Gluck and Rilke, in English translation, for mezzo-soprano and baritone, and the three-movement work was introduced in Boston last spring.
Leonard Slatkin, now music director of the Detroit Symphony, originally thought he was coming to the Berkshires to conduct only Saturday’s concert, which featured Midori as the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto. Instead he found himself stepping in with only one week to learn the unrecorded Harbison score, with which no one but Levine was familiar.
Before Levine’s tenure, it would never even have been performed in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Nervous singers and instrumentalists noticed Slatkin taking it faster on Friday night but, mercifully, they had already performed the piece, and they worked with him, admiring his feat without reserve.
Harbison composed “The Great Gatsby” for the Metropolitan Opera, but Friday’s singing symphony (a form in which Mahler also worked) sets off the voice better than the opera does. Orchestral sonorities were interesting as usual, but the whole was much more accessible than his previous works.
Levine, director of the Met, had of course chosen the vocal soloists. As Orpheus, Thomas Meglioranza had an angular narrative for his supple voice. When Orpheus took his oath not to turn and look at Eurydice, and then broke it, the orchestra was overpowering, but that’s because the orchestra is monstrously important at that place. The updated version of Orpheus’s lyre was a penetrating electric guitar played by Michael Gandolfi, a composer on the Tanglewood faculty.
Kate Lindsey sang with free, well-proportioned tone; starting with “Where would I be without my sorrow,” her lyrics were centered on two-note moans in the strings, with electric guitar. She will be heard Tuesday at 8 pm in Elliott Carter’s “In the Distances of Sleep,” which Levine, a Carter champion, invited her to understudy during the winter.
Orpheus is basically a negative story, but Mahler’s First Symphony — no voices yet — is affirmative. If Levine makes it an opera, Slatkin, with his Hollywood background, made it a soundtrack, with broad contrasts one might find in a movie score.
Slatkin had come expecting to play Vaughan Williams’s “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus,’ ” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Midori and Copland’s Third Symphony. With Friday’s challenge out of the way, he tore into Saturday’s schedule with gusto. “Five Variants” had not been heard at Tanglewood. It inhabits the same plush string-harp world as “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” so it’s odd that it isn’t played more, especially with its familiar melody that Vaughan Williams contended was not a folk tune. So he must have written it.
Midori has surely played the Tchaikovsky a thousand times, but here she tried something new: a tightly controlled unflashy reading that put Slatkin on his mettle to keep the orchestra out of her way. He did attractive things with woodwinds, setting off little dialogues with the solo violin. Humid air hung heavy, and it’s hard to guess how much the lawn crowd heard on the grass wet from a dinner-hour storm. (At least there was a lawn crowd Saturday, as opposed to Friday.) But the audience applauded loudly.
Copland’s Third Symphony has also had little attention, considering the composer’s ties to Tanglewood. Written for the Music Center’s opening season, it predates “Appalachian Spring,” with typically wide-armed harmonies, but misses out on great tunes. That is, with the exception of the wonderful brass-and-drums section that became the stand-alone “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
On Sunday afternoon the orchestra was led — with assurance — by Shi-Yeon Sung, the first female assistant conductor in Boston Symphony history. Born in Korea in 1975 and trained in Germany, Sung was voted into her position by orchestra members, who played a popular program of Schumann and Mendelssohn. With her angular energy and black suit, pushing her hair back, she recalled the young Seiji Ozawa, who took over the orchestra in 1972.
Opening with Schumann’s “Manfred” Overture, whose exposed entrances were generally well negotiated, Sung went on to his Piano Concerto, with the trustworthy Garrick Ohlsson, who sits and delivers perfect performances without fancy gestures or any sign of effort. The program concluded with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony.
The annual Festival of Contemporary Music, when Tanglewood Music Center fellows perform several concerts a day in Ozawa Hall, continues through Thursday night. This year, it celebrates the phenomenal Elliott Carter, who at 100 (in December) still composes and shows up for performances. In the music world, the national elections are a blip compared to the Carter centenary.
Levine, who will surely see a video in his hospital room, wrote a fine introduction in the week’s brochure, detailing a long, close connection with Carter’s work. Imagine: 47 pieces planned, 25 for orchestra, and Levine not there. But others were: Sunday morning the superb pianists Charles Rosen and Ursula Oppens performed the 1961 Double concerto for piano, harpsichord and two chamber orchestras.
Imagine student fellows performing the American premiere of the 2004 “Reflexions,” with Carter and Oliver Knussen (who conducted the world premieres of some of these pieces) looking on from the box near the stage.
No casual listener will tell you Carter’s music is easy; it reeks of brains. But concerts and activities — three most days — continue through Thursday, cost practically nothing and give a sense of Carter’s optimism and easy inspiration. You play mandolin? I’ll write a concerto. It’s your birthday? Mine? I’ll write a piece with a measure for each year.
The audience was larger than expected, and enthusiastic. Happy hundredth, Elliott. All rise.