The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood concert season concluded without surprise program changes, cancellations by performers or weather events like the ones that unsettled earlier weekends. Friday in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, the orchestra showcased its assistant conductor and pianist Peter Serkin; Saturday’s film night was a joy ride with John Williams, Audra McDonald and the Boston Pops, and on Sunday afternoon, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus joined principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink and soloists for the traditional closing, Beethoven’s Ninth.
Typically this summer, concerts in the smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall were more adventurous and elegant. On Thursday, Daniil Trifonov, 22, award-winner at Europe’s major piano competitions, gave a spellbinding recital of works by composers from Poland, Hungary and his native Russia.
His back hunched to a point, elbows raised to pounce on notes like a bird of prey, he looked like a piano version of the young Paganini. Passages in Scriabin’s Sonata-fantasy and Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor sprayed, bloomed and flamed, in contrast to thickness and sudden silences. Risks beget clinkers, but the ratio of huge risks to few clinkers was a good tradeoff. Trifonov looks too slight to have the gorgeous weight of tone he showed in Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Pianists grinned and grown men held hands with their wives. When a thunderstorm prevented a rush to the parking lot, the giddy audience didn’t mind hanging around to chat.
At Friday’s Prelude, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was led by its founder and director, John Oliver, in a luminous, perfectly shaped Britten program honoring his centenary (and also Oliver’s 50 years at Tanglewood). Most of the pieces are familiar to church choir singers, and “Rejoice in the Lamb,” a cantata with charm and vivid imagery, is widely sung. Oliver goes for a light, relaxed tone that set off Britten’s sensitive fusion of words and music.
Friday night in the Shed, the BSO was led by Andris Poga, the young Latvian assistant conductor in his first season. It was a lackluster concert. Poga is not yet ready to lead a full orchestra program, or else he should have had more rehearsal time. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, “Classical,” plodded along with little dynamic range. That’s OK once, if you don’t mind thinking of Walt Disney’s hippos in ballet slippers and tutus. Timpanist Timothy Genis was a help all evening, wielding mallets with cool grace. The Finale (molto vivace) picked up speed (as did the last movement in the concluding Beethoven Seventh).
Serkin is the chief advocate for Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, which he has been toting around for years. Crisp and dry, it has moments that suggest the scrappy band orchestration of Kurt Weill. With no strings to cover any weak conducting, an alertness prevailed in the orchestra, as if the musicians knew it was up to them. One wonders if Stravinsky hoped his piece would be more enduring. Maybe it was just this performance.
The outsize introduction of the Beethoven was ragged. Focus was on holding it together, so things were dropped, especially in the third movement. The funereal second movement was passable, and the finale was best, but for a work that Wagner called the apotheosis of the dance, it was too little too late.
One reason for film night’s huge crowd Saturday, clearly exceeding 15,000, is Americans’ confidence in their own opinions on an art form they gave the world. Everyone’s a critic. And Williams, the Pops conductor laureate, is a superb leader and beloved figure whose film montages screened above the orchestra become more inventive each year. (The cafeteria was selling cotton candy.)
Alternating with him on the podium was David Newman, son of Alfred, who composed the fanfare for 20th Century Fox, among other pieces. Megastar Audra McDonald sang a nice set, ending with “As Time Goes By,” (from “Casablanca,” as everyone knows) accompanied by Williams at the piano. The concert’s finale was Williams’s tribute to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: in other words, a sequence of accompanied clips from “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” How happy was everybody?
Sunday afternoon’s annual performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 drew another blockbuster crowd whose picnics began at noon. Haitink’s conducting was reasonably paced, and the strong-voiced soloists — Erin Wall, Tamara Mumford, Joseph Kaiser and John Relyea — were off book. Three have sung here before and surely would have felt silly using scores while the excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang from memory. It was Mumford’s first time here; she used a score at rehearsal, but woke up fast and had it memorized yesterday.
The huge audience seemed to be applauding the music, the weather, each other and the successful ending of another Tanglewood season.