By Leslie Kandell
LENOX, Mass. – The Boston Symphony Orchestra looked toward the future last weekend, welcoming music director-designate Andris Nelsons to Tanglewood, its summer home, while pioneering a computer-based method of audience engagement. Nelsons, an energetic 35-year-old Latvian, is eager to draw young audiences and likely to embrace social electronics as a dimension of the musical experience.
In fact, he seems enthusiastic about most things. The orchestra has been without a music director since James Levine became indisposed in 2008 and resigned in 2011. The July 11 concert reflected Nelsons’ positive attitude in hearty but precise readings of late works by Dvořák, including the Violin Voncerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter and Symphony No. 8.
Nelsons, here now for two weeks, had been at Tanglewood twice before emerging at the head of the director search list. As designate, he was to make a triumphal entry last summer conducting the Verdi Requiem, after a stint at Bayreuth. But a household accident there laid him up and he didn’t get here. (His wife, the soprano Kristine Opolais, came anyway and sang the solo.) He made his debut as music director-designate with the orchestra in Boston in October, 2013.
Filling in last year as music director – which also entails coaching the young professionals of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra – was the Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a respected Tanglewood figure. He died in June at age 80, suddenly leaving another gap. Yet another revered last-minute leader, Christoph von Dohnányi, just cancelled his summer plans because of illness in his family. So a lot is riding on Nelsons, the youngest BSO director in more than a century, to come forth as a strong director: artistic, watchful, and mishap-free.
Friday’s concert began with The Noonday Witch, an odd, sad choice for an opener and, surprisingly, a first for this orchestra. As in Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig,” an evil spirit seizes the frightened child of a heedless parent. Heavily programmatic but musically attractive, Dvořák’s version has several sections and a percussive, funereal ending. Nelsons elicited orchestral balance and precision in this piece – which should not be such a rarity – and throughout the program.
Nelsons and Mutter, from central Europe, were well suited to Dvořák and stylistically matched in the concerto. (They had once played Sarasate’s showy Carmen Fantasy here with the music center orchestra and wound up making a DVD of it.) Mutter’s was a big performance, assured and not glitzy. (“Pow, watch me toss off this one.”) Nelsons was right with her and had a good time supporting contrasts of dynamic and mood – even grabbing the podium rail so he could stamp at the violins.
The symphony was a different event, heard through a first-ever “lawncast,” with pilot program volunteers on the spacious lawn tapping iPads to control their view of the performance. Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed has 5,000 seats (a couple of hundred more or less, depending on the concert) under a roof with no walls in the performing area. Images from the stage were projected from screens on the dropped sides of the roof. The individual iPad images were additional.
Aimed at involving listeners who can’t keep their hands (or minds) off their mobile devices, the program offered apps that allowed participants three views of the orchestra, plus three more on related topics (that switched off while the orchestra played). Regardless of what angles the house cameras projected, lawncast listeners could tap to watch the conductor from the front or from near the percussion section, or with the audience’s view of the conductor’s back – most familiar but least interesting. The idea is to craft images with the angles you prefer.
For a concertgoer used to seeing the stage from a seat, it was a busy time. From the lawn (device in hand) the symphony sounded fine but was upstaged by working the device. Word was that 120 people tried this first-ever lawncast, but it looked like fewer. In a feedback session, it was collectively described as being in a nascent stage, needing more listener control of camera motion. Reception delays and glitches are being addressed for the near future.
Saturday’s concert, whose first half was performed by the music center orchestra, displayed the generation gap between the two orchestras. Nelsons, who has almost gained control of his large beat, couldn’t draw the soaring creamy harmonic beauty and seductive waltzes of the Rosenkavalier Suite, no matter how he tried, reportedly leaving the podium at rehearsal to demonstrate the waltz step. No music is more beautiful than the final trio, in which the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, latest winner of the Richard Tucker Award, was a transcendent Octavian. (Sopranos Sophie Bevan and Angela Denoke didn’t achieve the trio’s heavenly contours.)
The BSO, mature and stable, got all the waltz and dance rhythms in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, but the piece is nowhere near as lovely as the Strauss. This orchestrally divided program ended with its flashy version of Ravel’s Bolero.
Nelsons will be working with several Tanglewood departments this week. Next weekend’s BSO concert includes Christopher Rouse’s Rapture and Rolf Martinsson’s Trumpet Concerto, part of the annual Festival of Contemporary Music, most of which is carried by the TMC. The musical glut will be a shock, but the BSO community is united in a mission to help Nelsons become a long-term leader.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.