This was the annual schizophrenic weekend at Tanglewood. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed iconic Beethoven and Brahms symphonies in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, while elsewhere on the Berkshires estate, fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center presented the Festival of Contemporary Music, with up-to-the-minute chamber works. These uncrowded morning, afternoon and weeknight concerts take place in the smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall.
Adding to the musical tension was the two-week stay of Andris Nelsons, the orchestra’s Latvian-born music director-designate, during which he led Shed concerts, coached fellows gave interviews and learned to drive around the grounds in a golf cart. In addition, there were sudden substitutions for Christoph von Dohnanyi, who withdrew from his three scheduled conducting appearances because of illness in his family.
The first substitute, Friday evening, was new to Tanglewood, though not a novice. Edward Gardner, music director of the English National Opera, has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala as well. The unchanged program consisted of Dohnanyi specialties, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, plus Copland’s “Old American Songs” with the renowned baritone Thomas Hampson.
Gardner has better arm control than Nelsons. Smaller in stature, he makes more focused gestures. But “Till” came off flatfooted, and the pounding volume of his punishment seemed to be overkill for a naughty rascal — Till was only a prankster, after all.
Gardner’s experience in opera was apparent in the Copland, a Hampson staple. He held the orchestra well in check as Hampson heartily tossed off the folksy lyrics.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is hallowed ground, the more so for being on Leonard Bernstein’s last program here in 2000, a few weeks before his death. It too was heavy, taking close to 42 minutes, compared with Bernstein’s 36 (on YouTube). But it gathered steam until the exciting end, which brought cheers.
Saturday night, Nelsons returned to lead a generic Brahms Symphony 3, unusual in that it opened rather than closed the program. It’s a trust issue — he has to show that he knows core repertory, but in that Brahms (and for that matter, Sunday’s Beethoven No. 5) as compared with the trumpet concerto, Rolf Martinsson’s “Bridge,” that followed it. Nelsons seemed to use his left hand to steady himself on the podium, or to mimic his right hand, rather than to offer anything to the orchestra.
The 1999 Martinsson was a new piece for the orchestra, and soloist Hakan Hardenberger, in his first Tanglewood appearance, was snazzy in dress, stance and delivery. The concerto is noisy and jazzy, its long lines alternating with double (and more) tonguing. Nelsons, who has worked with Martinsson before, clearly digs this energetic piece, which is maybe Nelsons’s greatest promise for the future.
On Sunday, a gloriously sunny day in a beautiful weekend, Nelsons began with another large-orchestra piece he clearly likes: “Rapture” by Christopher Rouse. It begins softly, with light percussion, gathering every kind of momentum until its explosive end. Its arc shape calls to mind John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” heard here two weeks ago, and for that matter Ravel’s “Bolero,” heard last week.
The endlessly boyish violinist Joshua Bell, who has been exciting Tanglewood audiences for about a quarter-century, tore into Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” with gallant charm, as always.
What is out of the ordinary for these Shed concerts is the nods to the current century — at least almost. Usually, the Festival of Contemporary Music busily performs music that in some cases is as recent as couple of weeks ago, while the Boston Symphony pays homage to new music by choosing works that might be a century old, such as Debussy or Stravinsky.
When its major weekend concerts include Rouse and Martinsson — and when audiences cheer — one senses that it may be possible to enrich our musical past by appreciating our musical present. The (inexpensive) new music concerts go on through tonight in Ozawa Hall. Adventurous listeners are encouraged and welcomed.