LENOX, mass. – If you were brave enough, last summer you could turn into the driveway of Tanglewood, the idyllic summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There were the usual local teenagers who showed you to your parking lot, one pointing the way every few yards; the usual state troopers, patrol cars idling to pull a hat; the usual flowers that line the path through the pristine white gates.
But the familiarity stopped there. When you walked through the grounds, which were open and well-kept even without performances, the loneliness was overwhelming. No volunteers, overzealous to help. No ice cream. No parents worrying and wondering how far they are from the stage to safely place their child when the time comes. Nothing to see, the Koussevitzky Music Shed nailed up, bleak; no music to be heard, just the birds.
Well the music is coming home.
The Boston Symphony opened its shortened summer season here with a concert on Saturday evening, the orchestra’s first personal appearance since the dark, fearful nights of March 2020 and its first with its music director Andris Nelsons since the previous January.
The program was designed to appeal to, and it did, but the atmosphere would have been festive nonetheless. There was a standing ovation for the orchestra, a standing ovation for the conductor, a standing ovation for Mark Volpe, the recently retired President and CEO of the orchestra. The players, who usually don’t show any feelings to the outside world, stamped their feet when their leader Tamara Smirnova found the right key on the piano to invite them to vote.
The authorities had set attendance at half the norm, but the taxiways hummed with chatter, the lounge chairs crowded together; the front rows of the shed felt full, three feet apart or not. There would be no break, although the concert still lasted almost two hours; there would be no “ode to joy” where singing is still forbidden. I saw a single mask among thousands of faces.
On Sunday afternoon when a second concert was going on, everything felt strangely normal: students wandered in and out of the shed, heard a piece, and then left to practice or not; Spectators ran for cover when it rained and gave up their defense against the beetles; the whole place glowed in spite of the darkness with the light green tarpaulins offered in front of the door, some protecting the ground from the mud, others protecting picnics from the rain. Priorities.
“Reconnect, Restore, Rejoice” was written on the front of the program book. Nelsons spoke in his hesitant, serious manner from the stage how the pandemic – seemingly thought in the past tense even though the world has lost over four million lives – reminded us of “how much we need art, how much we need” culture “And music as” consolation for our souls “.
There would be no revolutions and no monuments here, only a restoration of the ancien régime: an orchestra that plays what it has played for a long time, and quite well. It should be Beethoven, and also the Fifth Symphony – Beethoven’s triumph over catastrophe, the human spirit, indomitable.
At least close enough. It will certainly take time for players of this quality to form a collective again, to fill out their sound, to find the attack and the common ground that characterize the best ensembles. An improvement over Saturday evening was already audible on Sunday in a lively run of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony.
Before that there were slack moments in Beethoven, bars in which the balances were put aside in the pursuit of pure exuberance, passages that were left to drift by a conductor who, since his arrival in Boston in 2014, seemed to have been rather aloof as an interpreter.
But the effect was still strong, surprisingly not so much for the effect of the whole thing as for the spark of the released players: the clarinet by William R. Hudgins, so gentle, such a balm; Elizabeth Rowe’s flute, so unusual in its woodiness; the trumpet by Thomas Rolfs, so rousing at full speed.
The soloists on offer also liked the same fine subtleties, neither of them intrusive. Emanuel Ax is nobody’s idea of a pianist embracing the limelight, preferring to share or wholesale it, but it was a pleasure to hear such discretion in his “Kaiser” concert – such a care the intonation of a chord, so sensitivity in the way his right hand formed phrases in response to the orchestra. Baiba Skride took a similar approach to the Sibelius Violin Concerto, a poignant display of a deep, even forlorn, introspection, played mostly inward, across from the violas on her left.
Beneficial for the soul.
The question that remains, however, is whether this orchestra will choose to try harder, even as salaries rebound after 37 percent cuts and revenue losses of more than $ 50 million cast a shadow on the budget. It has a new President and CEO, Gail Samuel, of the ambitious Los Angeles Philharmonic. an encouraging part of his streaming energy last year has been spent exploring music he has ignored for too long; and the Symphony Hall season features new works by Julia Adolphe, Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin.
But this season looks bleak compared to what other traditional orchestras have to offer. It speaks volumes that little time was devoted to anything contemporary here, even if Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers”, with its short answer to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, pulsed with frenzied energy and seemed to run on the spot.
Then the Boston Symphony returns – and just persists.