The weekend’s concerts at Tanglewood began and ended with great standards of the repertory, but Friday and Saturday bloomed with pieces (coincidentally, by people named Hector) that depict scenes and characters in dramatic, specific ways.
Friday’s program was uncommon because of its two kinds of piano concerto: the first by Mozart, the next by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s foremost composer. Brazil was a presence for more reasons than one: it is the native land of Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who made a highly satisfactory Tanglewood debut, and also of Nelson Freire, the brilliant, quirky pianist who played both concertos.
On the podium the baby-faced Lehninger showed a pleasant manner combined with obvious confidence in the orchestra’s ability, and compact strength that elicited powerful tone. Lehninger (a last minute stand-in for James Levine at Carnegie Hall last winter) knew Freire early in his own musical life, which, by the way, includes his master’s degree from Bard College. So the modest (and shy) Freire (pronounced FRAY-reh) probably felt comfortable enough to perform — never a given for him — and even, as Lehninger noted in a talk Thursday, to show up for rehearsal.
Mozart used relatively large forces for the D minor Concerto, K. 466. With Freire’s hefty, balanced tone, notes flowed together like cream yet still retained clarity. The composer, writing in haste, left no cadenza for this great piece, and Freire chose one by Carl Reinecke, modestly arranged by Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes.
Lurking behind the Mozart orchestra, stage left, was a wicked little percussion combo in anticipation of the infectious rhythms of Villa-Lobos’s “Momoprecoce,” in its first Boston Symphony hearing. The setup was then expanded for Ravel’s dazzling, perhaps definitive, orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Both works are divided into sections depicting vignettes of scenes and characters.
“Momoprecoce” is a concerto-form orchestration of a 1919 piano piece. (Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano original appeared in 1922.) The title, according to the program note by Tanglewood Fellow Zoe Kemmerling, means something like “precocious king of ridicule,” who would have been a masked figure at Brazil’s Mardi Gras carnivals.
Its flashy sections sport glissandi and rounded chords, as well as rumbling feral percussion and brass, and burbling clarinet passages. Flavored with Falla, it sparkles with Spanish Romanticism, spiky harmonies, and a little Milhaud, who, like Ravel, was an early Villa-Lobos supporter.
This appeared to be the piece Freire came to play. The stars must have been aligned for his diffident personality: Brazilian mentoree conductor, a cadenza arranged by a Brazilian and a Brazilian composition new to Tanglewood audiences.
“Pictures” is a better work, and shows Ravel the arranger at his greatest. The long-breathed popular main trumpet line was as exciting as the dramatic low brass. Strings defined their varied character parts, from stately promenaders to disoriented baby chicks. Lehninger, whose entrance cues could use a little cleanup here and there, was alive to dramatic changes, and into orchestral color.
The weekend presence of Charles Dutoit, former husband of Freire’s Argentine colleague Martha Argerich, was probably another enticement for Freire, who has often played under him. On Saturday, the Swiss-born Dutoit led “The Damnation of Faust,” a gorgeous, flawed monster fantasy by Hector Berlioz, that can be staged as an opera or performed as an oratorio. (Neither works perfectly.)
Tanglewood’s concert version starred mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. She had sung the role of Marguerite, Faust’s abandoned lover, at the Metropolitan Opera in a thrilling 2008 version by Robert Lepage (whose recent staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle disappointed many). Graham’s solos, with melting English horn accompaniment played by Robert Sheena, were as luscious as they had been at the Met.
The problematic title role (the libretto never makes clear what’s eating Faust) was sung by tenor Paul Groves, who had warmed to it by the time of the love duets, even if he was still straining for high notes. Sir Willard White was a serviceably suave Mephisto, but the heroes of the 130-minute piece were Dutoit, the orchestra that he showed off eloquently, and John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singing all its roles from memory. Dutoit was in top form and perfect control.
The Saturday concert was the first of the season with a lawn so damp that few chose to sit on it. (Sunday afternoon was slightly drier.) Much-needed rain enhanced the green grounds but came at the price of diminished audience and revenue.
Standard works framing Friday and Saturday’s concerts were Thursday’s conclusion of the four-segment complete Brahms piano solos with Gerhard Oppitz, a Friday Prelude of Mozart and Schubert piano trios, and Sunday’s program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Emanuel Ax (who played a Schubert encore) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, conducted by Dutoit.