Tanglewood’s orchestral and chamber music programs amounted to expressions of love on Thursday and Friday. The love was for a performer, for a piece, for a friend and for gifts of new music.
When you arrive at Tanglewood a half hour early for a chamber music concert and have to wait in a long line just to drive in, it’s either the Apocalypse or Yo-Yo Ma. Besides his fame and recognition as the world’s best cellist, Ma is a good-natured member of the community (you’ll find him in the audience, a church basement or a hair salon), and the kind of solid citizen that one patron called “a mensch.” What’s not to love?
The 1,100-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall was sold out Thursday, galleries and all, when Ma and his longtime piano partner, Emanuel Ax, were joined by the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos for an all-Brahms evening. The lawn crowd tripled that. People trudged in from parking areas they had never seen before.
Ax and Ma have performed together for decades, and Kavakos, 46, who plays a Stradivarius violin, was understandably nervous in the sunny G Major Sonata, as he faced an audience waiting for the next performer. At the piano, Ax looked like a mentor to a newcomer searching for the focus and strength of his tone. Kavakos had no wind in his sails until the second movement, which sounded like what he had come to play.
Entering to a thunderous ovation, Ma and Ax played the F Major Cello Sonata. This time Ma chose a small-scaled opening phrase that seemed held in, but it’s matter of taste and the piece may be done differently next time. The pair are at home performing as equals, and after last Saturday’s six-hour experimental-music marathon at MASSMoCA, listening to Ma and Ax felt sinfully cleansing.
Brahms revised his Op. 8 Piano Trio late in life, and it shows maturity and discipline without sacrificing its youthful exuberance. Kavakos, who performed the Szymanowski concerto in the Koussevitzky Music Shed on Saturday, balanced Ax and Ma well in the trio, as he did in the encore, a movement from Op. 87 in C Major. It swept away any questions about what he was doing here.
On Friday in the Shed, the Boston Symphony Orchestra honored the 70th birthday of conductor Leonard Slatkin. It wasn’t a huge event, but he had a great time doing his thing: leading new music, American music, and his favorite music.
Slatkin led the premiere of the fanfare-like “Circus Overture: into the eighth decade,” a BSO commission from his friend William Bolcom. This composer has always had his hand on the public pulse. The notes were new but the delirious beat, the instruments like wah-wah brass, and the extraneous noise that conveyed the festivity and mystery suggesting the circus were right on.
Wayne Barlow composed “The Winter’s Past,” for oboe and strings in 1938, but this was its first hearing at the BSO. Barlow, an organist and teacher at the Eastman School in Rochester, made this wistful, poignant piece from familiar songs, including “Wayfaring Stranger.” John Ferrillo, the superb principal oboe that James Levine stole away from the Met Orchestra when he was music director here, made it wondrously haunting.
Gil Shaham celebrated with his signature piece, Barber’s Violin Concerto, displaying a strong effortless tone. He grinned through most of the piece, like a host delighted that friends had come to his party. The audience stood and cheered, and was rewarded with an encore of the sparkling rondo from Bach’s E Minor Partita, unaccompanied.
Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations were the composer’s gift to his friends, much as Bolcom’s fanfare was a gift to Slatkin. Slatkin conducted passionately, without score, hands and arms shaping clear contrasts and precise ensemble.
Today’s all-Tchaikovsky concert will be another a love fest, when Ma performs Andante Cantabile, and also Variations on a Rococo Theme. Concluding with the Pathetique Symphony, the program should send listeners home in a very friendly mood.