Premieres make for a memorable Tanglewood weekend

Soprano Dawn Upshaw performs Osvaldo Golijov’s “Three Songs’’ with conductor Ludovic Morlot and the BSO at Tanglewood on Friday. Soprano Dawn Upshaw performs Osvaldo Golijov’s “Three Songs’’ with conductor Ludovic Morlot and the BSO at Tanglewood on Friday. (Hilary Scott)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / August 24, 2010

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LENOX—The past weekend at Tanglewood was dedicated to young conductors, familiar soloists, and patches to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s repertoire: Programs were sprinkled with BSO premieres. Some were understandable. Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral’’ dates only from 2000, and Mendelssohn’s violin-and-piano Concerto is something of a rarity. But Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant’’ Overture? That venerable chestnut, it turns out, had never migrated from the Pops library.

Friday night brought back former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot, soon to take over the Seattle Symphony. The soloist was soprano Dawn Upshaw, in superb voice in “Three Songs’’ by Osvaldo Golijov: dark, lyrical, long-breathed melodies, suiting her heady clarity and visceral phrasing. (The high, starry benediction of “Lúa descolorida’’ was especially fine.) In Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne,’’ Upshaw was perhaps too interpretively generous, over-tinkering her voice to delineate the storytelling; it didn’t always work, but when it did — a yodeling yawn from chest voice into a piping sigh for the spoiled housewife of “Oï, ayaï,’’ for instance — it was delicious.

Gallic delights framed the concert. Mozart’s “Paris’’ Symphony, K. 297, is froth, but refined, structured froth, which Morlot particularly broadcasted in the outer movements: full-bodied fizz in the opening, pinpoint carbonation in the finale. Morlot’s conducting was natural and precise, an auto-focus survey of each score. The approach divested Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose’’ ballet of some dreaminess, but compensated with timbral clarity: Ravel’s colors popped in high definition.

Saturday’s concert featured Susanna Mälkki, conductor of the avant-garde Ensemble Intercontemporain. This program, however, was unabashedly Classical. The first half was Mendelsshohn: the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ (crisp fleetness and roundhouse accents, Shakespeare’s forest a giddy, dangerous place), then the Concerto for Piano and Violin, with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. The fun of the piece — which the 14-year-old Mendelssohn wrote for himself and Eduard Rietz — is the precocious composer showing his age: just what a ridiculously talented teenager would fashion for himself and a friend, the deck stacked toward their bountiful solo virtuosity. Bell and Denk were ideal advocates, their considerable technique and intelligent care producing a nonchalant dazzle that would have both impressed and piqued the composer’s elders. (Bell returned for Beethoven’s opus 50 Romance in F minor, weaving a line of consistently fine-spun, silken tone, but intermittently slippery intonation.)

Mälkki’s foundation was a rhythmic energy that constantly percolated underneath the musical surface, producing an unusually fresh rendition of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Instead of a genial respite between the Third and Fifth Symphonies, this Fourth was their eccentrically thoughtful cousin, Beethoven’s good moods just as unpredictable as his bad ones. The finale was a white-knuckled ride, but one that the orchestra can — and did — pull off. It was a terrific performance.

The Suppé was on Sunday’s program, a Pops-like mélange conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Higdon’s “blue cathedral’’ was the novelty, a tone poem using exotic instrumental touches (half the orchestra gently jangling Baoding balls was a neat effect) to tweak its skillfully deployed post-modernist, tonal, vaguely cinematic sheen.

Violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, husband and wife, took turns on bonbons by the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, before joining for his lilting “Navarra.’’ They were a contrast: Anthony bringing an inward refinement to the winsome “Song of the Nightingale,’’ Shaham tearing through “Zigeunerweisen’’ with irrepressible flamboyance. If Anthony was determined to bring out the musical core of Sarasate’s fireworks, for Shaham, the fireworks were the core. But it provided textured give-and-take in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043), the echoing phrases making real conversation.

Guerrero, the new music director of the Nashville Symphony, was a wildly entertaining presence: a bit of a dancer, a bit of a mime, acting out the music as much as conducting it. It can get him into trouble; the Bach (in which Guerrero seemed to be trying to see just how little actual conducting he could get away with) had passages of awfully loose ensemble. But “Poet and Peasant’’ had character and energy to burn, as did the Suite from Bizet’s “Carmen.’’ Guerrero trumped the Sunday rains with his exuberant pursuit of happiness.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Ludovic Morlot, Susanna Mälkki, and Giancarlo Guerrero, conductors

At: Tanglewood, Friday, Saturday, Sunday