The Boston Symphony Orchestra approached something like business as usual last week after two turbulent weekends at Tanglewood. In the first, music director James Levine conducted Berlioz’s immense “Les Troyens” over two days; the second was upended by his sudden departure to undergo kidney surgery, ruling out his return this season.
After celebrating composer Elliott Carter’s impending 100th birthday in an astonishing week of all-Carter concerts (minus Levine, who conceived the tribute), the proceedings promised to be fairly normal. Friday night’s Brahms program — Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concerto No. 1 — was led by David Zinman, who had come from the Aspen Festival in Colorado, which he directs, to stand in for Levine.
What the heck?
But just before the symphony, a baffled audience in the Koussevitzky Music Shed saw the performers rise and leave the stage while the crew removed the podium and replaced it with a piano. Managing director Mark Volpe hurried backstage, and orchestra manager Ray Wellbaum shouted something unamplified and unintelligible at the buzzing crowd.
It turned out that one of the trombonists, poor guy, hadn’t yet arrived; he thought the Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yefim Bronfman — not the symphony — was to open the program because the pieces had been rehearsed in reverse order. But the symphony has to have trombones. So the concerto (which doesn’t require a trombone) functioned as a vamp while we waited.
Bronfman’s playing of the unwieldy, affecting concerto was more temperate and less edgy than it often is. Just as well, because the orchestra seemed tired after Thursday’s first-ever performance in Ozawa Hall and first Elliott Carter program. On a nice night with a good crowd, Zinman was apparently delighted just to be where he was, inviting each section to turn a phrase or join the complicated rhythmic patterns.
The Third Symphony has a peaceful ending that confused listeners used to hearing concerts that end with a flourish. An excellent lesson that stuff happens.
Saturday, the Boston Pops (the orchestra without its first chairs) progressed from all Brahms to all film, which at Tanglewood means mostly sound tracks by John Williams, who conducted, as always. This was the 10th annual “Film Night,” with screens inside the Shed and out, and if it wasn’t clear that each year’s concert is better than the last, one had only to try parking in the overflowing lots.
With 100 scores to his credit, Williams is the most prolific movie composer ever. Name a few? “Star Wars,” “Superman,” “Indiana Jones,” “ET,” “Close Encounters,” “Jaws,” “Harry Potter,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” for starters. With 5 Academy Awards, 45 nominations, 4 Emmys, 20 Grammys and 21 honorary degrees, who can blame him if his film programs sound like infomercials?
It’s thrilling to hear the scores conducted live as hit movies roll across the screens. Except that you don’t watch the musicians because you’re spellbound by the action the score enhances. Williams’ buddy Steven Spielberg was on hand to demonstrate Williams’ art, rolling an Indiana Jones clip — the circus train — without score, as it first comes to Williams. Spielberg narrated, pointing out places Williams would flag to set. Then they showed the clip with Williams conducting his music, and what a difference a score makes, especially if it’s by him.
A whole evening of mostly Williams reveals him as better at men’s themes than women’s. Spielberg’s wife, the actress Kate Capshaw (who was shown singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), came onstage after her clip, as did Karen Allen, whose “Marion” theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was played. But the roars were for marches and music identified with male heroes. (No offense — just a thought slipping in.)
Natural sound effects
Sunday afternoon’s thunderous downpour washed out the lawn crowd, but Shed seats were made available, courtesy of merciful ushers. The concert, with Roberto Abbado conducting the guest Orchestra of St. Luke’s, began late, with unwanted assistance from nature. The rumbling almost fit “In Memory,” Joan Tower’s affecting, grief-stricken arrangement of her string quartet movement in memory of a friend but revised after the World Trade Center attack.
The basically linear work starts with keening high string sounds that get louder, fatter and lower, till they become angry, sawed chords. The hand appealing is sure. One hopes that the 70-year-old Tower, who once composed “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” was thinking of herself.
Even in driving rain, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto bubbled with joy. Sarah Chang performed with flair, and — after a couple of near-misses near the top — accurate leaps. Abbado and the orchestra were responsive, unassuming accompanists. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which concluded the concert, can never be hurt by a little unplanned thunder.