Blomstedt And Williams Close Out Tanglewood On Grand, Wistful Note

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Herbert Blomstedt conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 during the last concert of the 2021 Tanglewood season. (Photos by Hilary Scott)

LENOX, Mass. — Bye-bye, Beethoven. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s truncated Tanglewood season could not conclude this summer with its usual Beethoven Nine, which involves a hundred unmasked singers shouting into each other’s faces. Instead, the final Sunday afternoon concert Aug. 15 was a stunning surprise: all Brahms, with a wonderful performance of the Violin Concerto and, especially, Symphony No. 4 under Herbert Blomstedt, age 94. Who’da thunk?

I bet Brahms would have loved Blomstedt, as the orchestra did, and as their alert, immersed playing showed. The conductor didn’t waste a gesture — no face wiping, rail grabbing, jumping, wild semaphores — all the ways they telegraph how much work they’re doing for you, and you better applaud. Unruffled and sensible, Blomstedt shaped exuberant and soft passages eloquently with, as Alexander Schneider would say, no schmuckadores.

The Greek-born violinist Leonidas Kavakos combed his hair, stood straight, and played the concerto like a mensch — centered tone and balance between solo declarative and group blend. He usually looks scruffy but plays pretty well — certainly when he joins Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, as he did earlier this summer for a well-received evening of Beethoven trios — but for this concert he too entered into the ensemble ambience, exhibiting the stature and gravitas of a soloist enjoying great music in elegant formality and quietude. (The program was another brainchild of the BSO’s brilliant artistic director, Tony Fogg, who survives one musical and administrative transition after another: this summer the departure of CEO Mark Volpe and muted arrival of his successor, Gail Samuel.)

Blomstedt grew up in Sweden but was born near Springfield, Mass., and studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood, then called Berkshire Music Center. He held important conducting positions in Europe and did a 10-year stint at the San Francisco Symphony. In his hands, the Brahms was a vital, multicolored whole, the pensive first movement moving toward the diffident second, the explosive third, and the inexorable fourth.

According to program notes by Steven Ledbetter, the violinist Pablo de Sarasate refused to perform the concerto because, in the Adagio, he didn’t want to “stand there and let the oboe play the one good tune in the piece.” It’s a Brahms thing: The composer often gave good bits, big and little, to other instruments, notably in the Piano Concerto No. 2, with its noble horn opening and renowned cello solo in the slow movement. Blomstedt gave the first post-performance bow to principal oboist John Ferrillo, who once played second oboe in the San Francisco Symphony.

Leonidas Kavakos was soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt.

The concert Aug. 14, not reviewed here, was led by BSO assistant conductor Anna Rakitina, who at 31 is about a third the age of the weekend’s other conductors. The program was Figaro Gets a Divorce by Elena Langer, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Ozawa Hall, usually for chamber concerts and guest recitals, was not used this summer. All concerts, limited to an hour and a half, had no intermission, and seating was separated, with empty seats between listeners. Attendees were glad to be in the larger Koussevitzky Music Shed and did not appear to take the experience for granted.

Sunday’s weather was a warm, sunny Berkshires valedictory, but Friday night made you feel sweaty because of the close humidity of a heat wave about to break. The concert, by the Boston Pops, was called “John Williams Film Night.” It was sold out up to the state’s 50 percent allowable cap, and you couldn’t even buy a lawn pass.

The Pops, led by Keith Lockhart for 26 years and counting, is the BSO minus first chairs, and that difference is the only one, so that orchestra is not to be minimized.

Williams, fairly strong and steady at 89 (healthier than Leonard Bernstein, another Tanglewood icon, at 72 in August 1990, two months before his death), spends part of every summer at Tanglewood, conducting and giving talks to composers. Although he led the Pops for 13 years, what he is known for (and made his real money at) is a multitude of all-time great, memorable film scores (every American who hears those two menacing low notes recognizes Jaws), which have earned him more Oscars than anyone except Walt Disney. Taken as a whole, they are probably the greatest oeuvre of their kind.

John Williams conducted the Boston Pops during an evening of film scores, including many of his most beloved.

Williams concerts begin with film scores by others (performed by the Pops under screened clips from the films) and move toward blockbusters like (but not limited to) Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Superman, ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

In the first half of the weekend’s opening concert, Lockhart conducted scores under clips of Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, and Sabrina, the last of whose score is by Williams, it turns out. It became a rhapsodic violin solo played by associate concertmaster Alexander Velinzon. (BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe retired in September 2019, so acting concertmaster Tamara Smirnova ascends to temporary concertmaster and has the night off from the Pops, and Velinzon is next up.)

Williams’ annual appearances include at least one piece from a little-known film that he has declared his “favorite child.” He has scored more little-known films than one would guess. (Did you know he wrote the score for the 1968 film Heidi, played in the movie that pre-empted that infamous football match now known as the Heidi game?) His captive audience listens to the unknown score and might possibly recognize it if it’s played somewhere in the future. (He never has to boost Jaws.)

This time that slot was filled by a suite from The BFG. That’s Big Friendly Giant, in case you’re not familiar. On this program, Williams didn’t have to worry about boosting his talents as a classical composer, as he often does when he brings a piece to a program; he’s like the guy on the carousel horse who can’t seem to grab the gold ring.

Boston Pops mutual admiration society: former conductor John Williams and current conductor Keith Lockhart.

He may be so gifted at scoring movies where the director orders, “We need 10 more seconds here,” or, “We’re moving the loud part up a half-minute,” that he’s been imprinted by this unnatural way of composing. His classical works may lack the instant appeal and staying power of Barber and that ilk, or, heaven knows, of Williams’ film scores that everyone can sing.

After Sunday, an eerie silence descended on the Tanglewood grounds. Students, called fellows because they are adults, departed, as did the other musicians. This year, fellows, reduced in number, were not assigned to sponsors. Donations were encouraged, but not personal contact and pride that this or that fellow was “yours.” The cafeteria will remain closed until the next Popular Artists concert.

The following weekend, usually featuring pop artists or bands, was shrouded in darkness. Nothing at all was booked for Friday.  Saturday’s popular artist got sick and had to cancel. Sunday’s hurricane, more of a threat than a storm, still caused the cancellation of Judy Collins. White sawhorses blocked the entrance, as if Tanglewood had been taken away.

Wistful adieu, 2021. Fingers crossed for next summer. 

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