Music Review: Boston Symphony Orchestra Opens the Tanglewood Festival

July 10th, 2013

Paul Marotta�

Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its Tanglewood season on Friday night with Joshua Bell, left, on violin and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D and Symphony No. 5 in E minor.

LENOX, Mass. — Meteorologists, astronomers and schoolchildren may disagree. But for a substantial crowd of music lovers, summer officially began on Friday when the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its summer festival at Tanglewood with an all-Tchaikovsky concert under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The concert took place in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, which celebrates its 75th year this season, and, like that structure, aimed for a happy medium between solidly grounded and breezy.

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That was in large part due to the violinist Joshua Bell, who managed to bring a breath of fresh air to Tchaikovsky’s well-worn Violin Concerto in D. There was an arresting playfulness to the opening movement as well as a finely judged gradation of fortes that allowed Mr. Bell to build up momentum gradually while always remaining ready to pull back to a place of reflection.

At times Mr. Bell took substantial liberties with the tempo, which lent a nice teasing quality to the dancelike passages but often left Mr. Frühbeck in the lurch. Mr. Bell appears less interested in metric precision than in communication, and his uncanny ability to make even the most well-known melodies feel conversational makes him one of the most engaging violinists today. His cadenza in the first movement felt so much like speech that a simple plucked chord became a punch line that sent a low ripple of laughter through the audience.

The folk-inflected opening of the Canzonetta flowed thick with Russian melancholy. Mr. Bell’s opening melody was sweet but briefly eclipsed by an even lovelier flute solo. When the solo violin and flute returned to the melody together, Mr. Bell smudged the pitch on his repeated notes a bit, adding a dab of the blues to Tchaikovsky. In the lead-up to the final Allegro vivacissimo, Mr. Bell once again played with the tempo like someone toying with a spring. Then he let it pop, and soloist and orchestra were off on a high-speed race to the finish line.

The second half was given over to a muscular performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. From the menacing bass clarinet line that opens the first movement, the focus was on instrumental color and dramatic momentum. After a searching beginning, the piece quickly establishes its own logic, and the music’s interest lies not so much in its direction, which is predictable, as in the character of its motion. Under the direction of Mr. Frühbeck, it gurgled, rushed, halted and swelled beautifully.

Even when he conducts from a high-backed office chair, as he did on Friday evening, Mr. Frühbeck’s gestures have an impatient air to them. He specializes in urgent upward arm movements that appear designed to will the players to get up out of their seats. This seemingly irritable mode served this symphony well where innocent dances and lush Romantic melodies suddenly grow restless, spin out of control and exhaust themselves.

Mr. Frühbeck brought a lighter hand to the third movement’s waltz, which was characterized by an airy grace and in which even the syncopated hiccups held a certain tipsy elegance. The final movement was thoroughly and justifiably dominated by the Boston Symphony’s excellent brass section.

The Tanglewood Festival continues through Sept. 1 at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass.; (888) 266-1200 or (617) 266-1492, bso.org.

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