The all-Beethoven concert at Tanglewood on Friday was a first in more ways than one. Besides opening the Boston Symphony summer season, it replicated the orchestra’s very first Berkshires program, which had been performed 75 years ago, before the building of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The weather was pleasant — as it had been that far-off day — the crowds large, and celebration was in order.
Unavoidably missing was the music director. Serge Koussevitzky, who dreamed up the summer home and teaching center idea — and made it happen, brilliantly — was a skilled, visionary leader from 1924 to 1949. Recently, James Levine brought energy, excitement and high hopes for an opera connection, but poor health forced him to retire after a few aborted summers. As management seeks a successor, guest conductors rule the day.
On the podium Friday evening was Christoph von Dohnanyi, music director laureate of the Cleveland Orchestra, whose numerous recordings of Beethoven are readily available. The Berlin-born 82-year-old knows all about conducting Beethoven, and was an excellent advocate for the Leonore Overture No. 3 and Symphonies No. 6 and 5 — Koussevitzky’s 1937 program on the lawn.
On Dohnanyi’s downbeat, musicians must enter, and no way dare they miss his cutoffs. The works had substance, controlled changes in dynamics and nuanced articulation. That’s a mouthful to say, but the praise was earned. And he knows how to make a smooth crescendo starting from nothing.
So far, Levine’s miraculous brass legacy is holding. The overture’s penetrating offstage trumpet calls, by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs, were almost languid in their assurance. (Other starring brass section moments happened both Friday and Saturday.)
The Sixth, or “Pastoral,” Symphony shows a kinder, gentler Beethoven, and also his love for orchestral timbres. Each section had its showcase minute, and each rose to it. Beethoven’s enjoyment of nasty little jokes was evident in both this and the stormy Fifth: the “Pastoral” has its band of drunken peasants who can’t keep the beat, and the Fifth has its lumbering bass fiddles, whose passagework is so fancy that they have to make three tries to get it going.
The Fifth was on the quick side, but it’s a compact work, especially in comparison to the expansive Sixth. It’s a matter of taste and, often, which recordings one grows up hearing.
Printed in the weekly Tanglewood program book were copies of initial program pages. The second was not identical to last Saturday’s, but both had a mixed-bag first half, ending with Ravel, and both concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
Because many renowned conductors have led this work, I was unprepared to be on the edge of my seat for Tanglewood newcomer Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, of whom I had never heard. (A Harvard grad who majored in American History, he conducts all over Middle America. We should all take a listen to his recordings on the Naxos label.)
Again we heard the swashbuckling brass, and Rolfs’ cutting nasal tone. Stern led like a regular guy — no leaping around or making extra gestures — and the appreciative orchestra went right with him. He’ll be here again, bet on it.
Opening this program was a stable reading of Barber’s “School for Scandal” overture, followed by Ravel’s dramatic “Tsigane,” with Joshua Bell as the graceful, convincing violinist. Bell then joined composer and bassist Edgar Meyer for the premiere of Meyer’s Double Concerto, a harmless enough piece — maybe with a touch of Barber — in a mode one listener called “country classical.” Nice term, especially when the bass fiddle soloist is in rolled-up shirtsleeves and red suspenders.
Bookending the Friday and Saturday concerts were Thursday’s recital by the Emerson String Quartet and Sunday’s Boston Pops concert, both class events in their way. The renowned Emerson, whose membership has not changed since 1987 (though cellist David Finckel is about to leave), has been at the top of its game for decades. The highlight was not K.575 in D by Mozart, nor even the new “Four Quarters” by Thomas Ades that they’ve been taking around, but good old — great old — Op. 130 by Beethoven, with the original giant Grosse Fugue ending. The slow movement was so heavenly that I didn’t want it to stop, and the driven fugue was an orgy of mastery all around.
The Pops tribute to New York Sunday, called “Bright Lights Big City,” is a reminder that Keith Lockhart, who filled in with the BBC Orchestra for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, has smarts and showmanship to also put across Herrmann’s “Taxi Driver” score and Ellington’s sophisticated “Harlem.” More? Bernadette Peters, a consummate pro, did a dazzling set of mostly Sondheim, with the Pops and her own band. And the wondrous weather held.