LENOX, Mass. -- The facts are that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Andris Nelsons, arrived at Tanglewood last weekend, conducted well-planned concerts of music by Mozart, Mahler, Sibelius, Beethoven and -- on Sunday with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra -- beloved Brahms. The apparently unanimous verdict was: wow! Rejoice.
These program choices, and their connections, were probably the idea of Anthony Fogg, the orchestra’s artistic administrator. But the presiding spirit was Leonard Bernstein, who, though never the BSO music director, was an iconic figure in the Berkshires. During his annual visits he conducted, coached student conductors, socialized and brought young professionals of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra out of the small halls and into the Koussevitzky Music Shed, for their own concert with him –- usually Brahms, Mahler or Sibelius, and always exciting.
For reasons not made clear to the public, Nelsons has abruptly withdrawn from his contract to conduct at the Bayreuth opera festival, and Boston hopes Germany’s loss will be its gain. In his third year at this post, the 37-year-old Latvian is to conduct one more Tanglewood weekend, but he will work here for the month, which should help bring him closer to the BSO and the TMC, the orchestra’s prestigious teaching arm.
Weekend crowds may not have been able to describe what excited them about Nelsons, but prolonged cheers and applause showed that they sensed his musical and technical growth. He still needs to gain physical strength, and maybe stop gripping the podium rail, but his instructions display order and control, and his arms convey purpose, with less flailing than in the past.
Friday’s concert (not reviewed) was Mozart’s final Piano Concerto (No. 27) with Jonathan Biss, and Mahler’s wrenching Symphony No. 9 (after which Bernstein greeted fans in bathrobe and towel). Saturday’s began with John Corigliano’s interesting, satisfying Fantasia on an Ostinato, which pays homage to (or takes off on) the steady beat of the famous slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 -- the piece that concluded the program.
Between the two pieces was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with the young German soloist Augustin Hadelich, whose recording of it on the AVIE label earned a Grammy nomination. Strenuous and poignant, in the mood of “Finlandia,” it was composed after Sibelius had failed at being the violinist he wanted to be, and was battling alcohol problems. The fancy solo part has several cadenzas, but with the orchestra’s committed support, the performance was right on target.
The Beethoven symphony, which Wagner called “apotheosis of the dance” was one of Bernstein’s coaching favorites, and in fact the last piece he led in the Shed, a few weeks before his death in 1990. He didn’t dance or do anything flashy on that occasion, nor did Nelsons on Saturday.
Those unfamiliar musicians in the BSO chairs on Sunday afternoon were fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, whom Nelsons led in a whopping all-Brahms program: the unwieldy Piano Concerto No. 1 with the English pianist Paul Lewis, and the much later Symphony No. 1, which Bernstein called “the Tanglewood national anthem.”
For a slender, calm man, Lewis had amazing power and understanding of this difficult piece, which pianists sometimes appear to tackle rather than perform. And there were no sloppy tempos. The symphony, its string sections shored up by BSO players, was a triumph -– for the sections, featuring brilliant woodwinds, and for Nelsons, who acted out his directions without going too far. The audience roared. Right.