Tanglewood threw itself a gala birthday bash on Saturday, to honor the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 75 summers in the Berkshires. The first concert on the property in 1937, which took place in a tent, didn’t actually happen until August, but July 14 was the day it was possible to assemble cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductor John Williams, singer James Taylor, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianists Emanuel Ax and Peter Serkin, plus the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestras, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and alumni soloists in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.
Parking was awful, just like the 1950s and 60s, but considering the tricks weather can play, the balmy evening should be recorded as a miracle.
In an informal survey, concertgoers on the crowded lawn revealed that they were summer or year-round residents, and that they came fairly often—for big events, always. The names that drew them Saturday were Ma, Williams and Taylor. Only one person mentioned Mutter, and the two famous pianists, popular here, did not come up. Neither did the orchestras, conductors or chorus.
A program booklet especially for this concert contained a timeline and pages from early programs, describing how the Tappan family’s Lenox estate came to be donated to the orchestra. It also showed the layout of earlier booklets, which suggested things to do in the Berkshires — most still “merit attention.”
Soloists’ biographies were preceded by their statements about their loving relationship to the venerable festival, and to its school, the Tanglewood Music Center. Tanglewood’s history was depicted in a short sweet film with old photos and young musicians.
And what a night it was for those young players, performing with Ax in two movements of a Haydn concerto under Stefan Asbury (they sounded scared but Ax carried it), Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile with Ma conducting — more accurately, smiling at the cellists, who gave their all — and Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” with Mutter, recorded by a long-necked PBS camera that kept rising from the front row like E.T. (in the film scored by Williams) craning his neck up for a better view.
The concert, which ran almost three hours, began with Copland’s brass and drums “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a Tanglewood staple with ties to the composer, who taught at the Music Center from its 1940 beginning. His nobly played Fanfare was followed by excerpts from “On the Town” by Leonard Bernstein, a member of the inaugural music center class who could blue a jazz note as well as Gershwin.
Seventeen years into his directorship, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart has really assumed his space, and knows how to chat up an audience for the cameras. It’s no accident that he, an American, was called to London as a last-minute sub to conduct the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert.
Just when we think we’ve heard everything, here’s James Taylor, capless in a suit, accompanied by the Pops and its conductor laureate, John Williams, singing favorites, including “Old Man River.” He sings on key, can phrase, is more comfortable holding his guitar than not, and if his tone is thin and nasal, perhaps that’s only by comparison to Paul Robeson.
The audience listened—to this, as well as the whole concert, with reverent devotion, knowing that they were at an event, were in the company of local heroes including Gov. Deval Patrick, and that they might be seen on the Aug. 10 PBS television special.
Ravel’s “La Valse,” under Andris Nelsons (the 32-year-old Latvian who led Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Brahms’s Second Symphony on Sunday), was on the wild side, perhaps because of the conductor’s big beat, but he surely had a whale of a time in his first Tanglewood appearance. (Nelsons is rumored to be among those to watch in the search for a successor to music director James Levine.)
Williams and Ma presented an award in absentia to former Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa, who is ill. Ma read Ozawa’s response while standing under a large projection of Ozawa’s photo.
The finale, led by David Zinman, who studied here in 1958, was Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, which begins with a long piano solo. It was introspectively performed by Peter Serkin, with his signature measured trills. This piece is often somewhat of a bore till the chorus — in this case the full-bodied Tanglewood Festival Chorus — and soloists explode in, but Serkin delivered it with affection and assurance. Among Tanglewood alumni soloists was soprano Emalie Savoy, a Duanesburg Central School graduate who now sings at the Metropolitan Opera. Those who stayed for the fireworks were glad they did.
By the way, there were other concerts: a medieval Icelandic epic Thursday, Mutter’s all-Mozart violin concerto evening Friday and Sunday’s Stravinsky-Brahms. But the celebration was the main event. Check it out on TV Aug. 10.