Tanglewood’s weekend programs were shaped not only by conductors and soloists, but also by phantoms of those scheduled to appear, who did not. Notable among them was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director designate, Andris Nelsons, but other conductors and soloists had to be replaced as well, with results ranging from mercifully OK to spectacular.
The replacements had been corralled on a couple of days notice by another kind of virtuoso: artistic administrator Anthony Fogg, who gave the impression that he knows where everyone is in the world at any given moment, what they do well, and how to get them to the Berkshires. As Fogg put it in a pre-concert mini-talk Friday: “We’ve had a change of soloists, a slight change of repertory, and there will still be wonderful music-making.” He wasn’t far off.
Saturday’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem Mass was by far the most important: it is the Boston Symphony’s homage to Verdi in his bicentennial year, and it was Nelsons’s sole appearance this summer. The buzz began last month. But Nelsons, in Bayreuth (for Wagner’s shared bicentennial) hit his head and was hospitalized with a concussion (from which he is recovering).
Enter (thanks to Fogg) Carlo Montanaro, steeped in opera of his native Italy and currently music director of the Polish National Opera (where, in this opinion, he’ll have left by next month, to assume his rightful place on the international scene). It was his first time here — maybe there’s still time to book him for next summer.
What a splendid 80 minutes. Montanaro brought out the work’s unusual conflict between fear of God and death, coupled with anger at God and death. For its beauty, color and drama, the Requiem has been called Verdi’s greatest opera, and Montanaro clearly took risks, but caught its excitement through contrast, sweep, rubato and precision. The Koussevitzky Music Shed can be an emporium of bad manners, but there was not a cough. The silence intensified the suspense. Even after the wild fugue that preceded the hushed plea for liberation from death, not one person in the full house and big lawn crowd broke the spell with mindless applause (as it did the next day), until Montanaro lowered his fist.
Voices in the solo quartet, chosen by Nelsons, with his wife, Khristine Opolais, as the soprano, were separately assertive. Ukranian tenor Dmytro Popov opened his mouth as wide as his face, and his great voice poured out and soared. Lioba Braun, an experienced Wagnerian from Germany, had a focused tone (without hooting), and bass Eric Owens, the Metropolitan Opera’s current favorite Alberich, amply covered on short notice for Ferrucio Furlanetto, who canceled (as he has done previously).
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver and singing from memory as usual, was alert to Montanaro’s clean gestures and sensitive to small changes that had big effects.
The Friday and Sunday concerts were to be led by Christoph Eschenbach — Friday’s all-Mozart program from the piano. When an ear infection precluded his air travel, conductors were needed for two concerts, plus a pianist for one. It was nice to see Edo de Waart, music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, on this podium again, though his partnering did not rise above pleasantness.
Good-natured Garrick Ohlsson, here for a recital last Thursday and for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on Sunday, was willing to play Mozart’s concert aria, “Ch’io mi scordi di te?”, with soprano Christine Schafer, and also a concerto, though he chose K.595, Mozart’s last one. Ohlsson gave a thoroughly trustworthy account, as he does of everything he plays. Schafer seemed to be working hard in the aria — not a good thing to make visible in Mozart.
The Verdi was a tough act to follow. Ludovic Morlot, a former Tanglewood fellow, then assistant conductor, now music director of the Seattle Symphony — smoothing its troubles — was vacationing near Tanglewood, poor fellow. He was snapped up for Sunday, and led his former colleagues insightfully in Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, New World Symphony, and the Prokofiev, with Ohlsson, which rain did not help.
Anyone who has heard Martha Argerich pounce, flash and twinkle her way through the concerto will not find it easy to accept someone else. Perhaps it was the humidity, or the short rehearsal time, but this was plodding, and lacked the composer’s trademark slyness and wit.
“Whatever we play, we want you never to forget that concert,” concertmaster Malcolm Lowe said, speaking about musicians’ passion in a talk on Thursday. Lowe was substituting for the scheduled speaker, orchestra librarian Martin Burlingame, who is sidelined with back problems.
Lowe was able to make time for the talk because he has been on medical leave since last winter, recuperating from rotator cuff surgery. (Associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova has a similar problem. They’d better hurry back, because assistant concertmaster Elita Kang has been subbing beautifully on their solos.) His point is well made: this weekend won’t soon be forgotten.