Boston Symphony Orchestra/Nelsons, Tanglewood, Massachusetts – review

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been a long time without a music director and it won’t have one officially until September. But in a coronation-like process Andris Nelsons, who as music director-designate led a subscription programme and a concert performance of Salome in Boston last season, conducted his first Tanglewood concert as so designated on Friday, and a jubilant occasion it was.

Leaderless since James Levine’s health-related resignation in early 2011, the orchestra has carried on under the custodial care of such senior maestros as Christoph von Dohnányi, Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur and Charles Dutoit and also performed under other contenders for the post until Nelsons’ appointment in May 2013. Mark Volpe, the orchestra’s managing director, has described the long selection process as “deliberative”.

Nelsons’ interpretive ideas in this all-Dvořák programme at the Koussevitzky Music Shed proved to be as stimulating as they were plentiful. In the Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 53 with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist he appeared to be a full partner in the musical decision-making, no self-effacing accompanist he. Neither performer could disguise the meandering nature of the first two movements, preferring instead to savour individual events along the way. But the third movement, with its spirited main theme, brought melodic and structural relief and handsomely crowned Mutter’s glorious playing in a work she has championed.

The exquisitely balanced string-choir opening of the Symphony No. 8 in G Op. 88 launched a performance of greater musical rewards. Nelsons, a tall 35-year-old Latvian, is a striking presence on the podium, often hunched over with arms outstretched. His conducting technique seemed only peripherally concerned with beating time – creating sound was its primary objective. Sometimes a jab of the baton triggered a surge, sometimes he dispensed with the baton and freed his right hand to mould a flowing melody, as in the luscious third movement. He showed a special gift for creating hushed but intense pianissimos as he strove to make every phrase count. Each time the sunny theme of the last movement recurred – and it did so often – it sounded fresh. Was there too much attention to detail at the expense of the big picture? Conceivably, but it didn’t bother me.

The concert began with the late tone poem The Noonday Witch Op. 108 in a performance that presaged the interpretive felicities to come. The BSO’s audience looks set for a rewarding new chapter.

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