LENOX, Mass. — If you were brave enough, there was a time last summer when you could still turn into the drive of Tanglewood, the idyllic summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra here. There were the usual local teenagers to direct you to your parking space, one pointing the way every few yards; the usual state troopers, patrol cars idling, there to tip a hat; the usual flowers, lining the path through the pristine white gates.
But the familiarity stopped there. Walking through the grounds, kept open and manicured even in the absence of performances, the loneliness was overwhelming. No volunteers, overeager to help. No ice creams. No parents fretting, wondering how far from the stage to set up, safe to settle their infant when the time came. Nothing to see, the Koussevitzky Music Shed boarded up, disconsolate; no music to hear, only the birds.
Well, music is coming home.
The Boston Symphony opened its shortened, little-short-of-miraculous summer season here with a concert on Saturday night, the orchestra’s first in-person performance since the dark, fearful nights of March 2020, and its first with its music director, Andris Nelsons, since the January prior.
The program was made to please, and please it did, but the atmosphere would have been festive regardless. There were standing ovations for the orchestra, standing ovations for the conductor, standing ovations for Mark Volpe, the orchestra’s just-retired president and chief executive. The players, not normally given to outward expressions of emotion, stomped their feet when their leader, Tamara Smirnova, found the right key on the piano to invite them to tune.
The authorities had set attendance at half the norm, but the rolling grounds hummed with chatter, lawn chairs crammed close; the front rows of the Shed felt full, three-foot distancing or not. There would be no intermission, though the concert still lasted nearly two hours; there would be no “Ode to Joy,” with singing still banned. I saw a single mask, amid thousands of faces.
By Sunday afternoon, when a second concert took place, it all felt oddly normal: students wandering in and out of the Shed, hearing a piece then leaving to practice, or not; spectators darting for cover as the rain came down, giving up on their defenses against the bugs; the whole place glowing, despite the gloom, with the bright green tarps that were on offer at the door, some protecting bottoms from the mud, others shielding picnics from the rain. Priorities.
“Reconnect, Restore, Rejoice,” the front of the program book declared. Nelsons, in his halting, earnest way, spoke from the stage of how the pandemic — seemingly thought of in the past tense, even as the world counts over four million lives lost — reminded us of “how much we need art, how much we need culture,” and of music being “comfort for our souls.”
There would be no revolutions here, and no memorials either, just a restoration of the ancien régime: an orchestra playing what it has long played, and playing it pretty well. Beethoven it would have to be, and the Fifth Symphony, too — the Beethoven of triumph over disaster, of the human spirit, indomitable.
Near enough, at least. Surely it will take time for players, even of this quality, to form a collective again, to fill out their sound, to find the attack and the togetherness that mark the best ensembles. An improvement from Saturday night was already audible on Sunday, in a peppy run through of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony.
Before that, there were slack moments in the Beethoven, bars when balances were set aside in pursuit of sheer exuberance, passages that were allowed to drift by a conductor who has seemed to grow more standoffish as an interpreter since his arrival in Boston in 2014.
But the effect was still potent, surprisingly not so much for the impact of the whole, but for glimmers of the players set free: the clarinet of William R. Hudgins, so mellow, such a balm; the flute of Elizabeth Rowe, so unusual in its woodiness; the trumpet of Thomas Rolfs, so rousing at full stretch.
The same fine subtleties appealed in the work of the soloists on offer, too, neither of them ostentatious. Emanuel Ax is nobody’s idea of a spotlight-hugging pianist, preferring to share it or give it away wholesale, but what a delight it was to hear such discretion in his “Emperor” Concerto — such care taken over the voicing of a chord, such sensitivity in the way his right hand shaped phrases in response to the orchestra. Baiba Skride took much the same approach to the Sibelius Violin Concerto, an affecting account of deep, even forlorn introspection, much of it played inward, toward the violas on her left.
Comfort for the soul, indeed.
The question remains, however, whether this orchestra will decide to attempt more, even as salaries recover from 37 percent cuts and losses of more than $50 million in revenue cast a shadow over the budget. It has brought in a new president and chief executive, Gail Samuel, from the ambitious Los Angeles Philharmonic; an encouraging amount of its streaming energy over the past year was spent exploring music that it has for too long ignored; and the Symphony Hall season will offer new works by Julia Adolphe, Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin.
But that season looks dreary compared with those being offered by similarly tradition-bound orchestras elsewhere. It speaks volumes that scant time was dedicated here to anything contemporary, even if Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers” made its mark, throbbing with frantic energy while seeming to run on the spot, with its brief response to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
The Boston Symphony returns, then — and continues merely to abide.
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