Bottom line: the Boston Symphony Orchestra has chosen a music director, who formally assumes his post in Boston this fall. He is now at Tanglewood for two weeks, conducting the orchestra and coaching fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, as well as leading their performances. He is alive and in good health. The weekend’s weather was glorious.
None of that is to be taken for granted. The leadership transition to the Latvian-born Andris Nelsons began back in 2008, when the injuries and ailments of former music director James Levine necessitated sudden cancellations and emergency searches for single-concert replacements. Levine resigned in June 2011, and the search for a director began in earnest. By that time, Nelsons had guest-conducted the BSO, and led Sarasate’s flashy “Carmen” fantasy with the TMCO and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter so successfully that a DVD was made of it.
Nelsons, an energetic guy with both orchestral and opera experience, was named music director-designate, and scheduled to conduct the Verdi Requiem last summer, after a stint at Bayreuth. But he was felled by a household accident at the last minute, and he never made it here. (More replacements were rushed in.)
Until Nelsons’ arrival, Tanglewood had been overseen by the aging, well-liked Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. Fruhbeck, suffering from cancer, died in June. (Replacement conductors required for five concerts.)
Another revered last-minute leader was Christoph von Dohnanyi, who just canceled his summer concert schedule because of illness in his family. (Instant replacements for Dohnanyi’s concerts, please.) So a lot is riding on Nelsons, 35, the youngest BSO director in more than a century, to remain a strong leader: artistic, watchful and mishap-free.
So, considering the violent storms that have devastated the Northeast lately, nothing is to be taken for granted. (See above.)
Friday’s all-Dvorak concert began with “The Noonday Witch,” an odd, sad choice for an opener, and a first for the orchestra. As in Schubert’s “Der Erlkonig,” an evil spirit seizes the frightened child of a heedless parent. Dvorak’s version is in several sections with a percussive, funereal ending. Nelsons created orchestral balance and precision in this piece and throughout the program.
By happy coincidence, Mutter was the soloist in the Violin Concerto. Nelsons, Mutter and Dvorak, all from central Europe, were stylistically well matched. Mutter’s was a big performance–assured and not glitzy. (“Pow, watch me toss off this one.”) Nelsons supported the contrasts of dynamic and mood—even holding onto the podium rail so he could stamp at the violins.
The symphony was turned into a different event, played onstage but listened to by “lawncast” outdoors, as volunteers tapped iPads to control their views. Images from the Koussevitzky Music Shed are projected from screens on the dropped sides of the roof. It’s like watching television with live music accompaniment.
In a pilot program aimed at involving listeners who can’t keep their hands (or minds) off their mobile devices, participants were given apps to download that allowed six options: three views of the orchestra, plus three related topics (that switched off when the orchestra played). Regardless of which angles the house cameras projected, lawncast listeners could tap to watch the conductor face on, or from near the percussion section, or to have an audience view of the conductor’s back — most familiar but least interesting. So the idea is to craft images with preferred angles.
For at least one veteran listener, it was a busy time. The symphony, which sounded fine though nothing more should be said, was forced into second place, and listeners had to trust the musicianship on the stage rather than assess it. Ostensibly this state of affairs is not permanent.
Saturday’s concert, whose first half was performed by the TMCO, displayed the generation gap between orchestras. Nelsons couldn’t draw out the soaring creamy harmonic beauty and seductive waltzes of the “Rosenkavalier” Suite, no matter how he tried (reportedly demonstrating the waltz step during rehearsal). The BSO, mature and stable, knew about all that in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which are nowhere as lovely as the Strauss. This orchestrally divided concert ended with a flashy “Bolero.”
One could say B+, but how can a music director be judged after two concerts? Next week, Nelsons conducts Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, as well as two pieces for the annual Contemporary Festival.