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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Lang Lang's mellow Mozart: BSO opens the Tanglewood season

 Andris Nelsons checks in with soloist Lang Lang. At the Tanglewood opening night concert, July 7, in the Shed. Hilary Scott photograph.

Andris Nelsons checks in with soloist Lang Lang. At the Tanglewood opening night concert, July 7, in the Shed. Hilary Scott photograph.

The fireworks were offstage. Onstage, all was meditative and mellow.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its Tanglewood summer season Friday evening in the Shed, with a flamboyant soloist in a quiet mood. Pianist Lang Lang, coming off a long hiatus due to injury, avoided his typically virtuosic repertory, choosing instead the introspective Mozart’s C minor concerto, No. 24. 

There were fireworks—behind the scenes. With the orchestra embroiled in two separate personnel disputes—a rebellion in the ranks of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, over massive dismissal of longtime members, as well as a pay discrimination lawsuit filed by principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe—the opening night performance, led by music director Andris Nelsons, offered a few hours of musical diversion.

Lang Lang’s performance was curious. The Chinese-born pianist has not performed since April, 2017, when he announced he had injured his left hand by over-practicing. His performances are always an event, but the long hiatus created even greater anticipation for this concert. When he changed the the scheduled repertory—he was originally supposed to play Tchaikovsky’s fiery first concerto—interest in his physical condition grew even more intense.

This performance did little to dispel the intrigue. His playing was delicate to the extreme—almost cautious. Make no mistake: it was probing, musically sensitive and altogether collaborative. But quiet. Very quiet.

His approach suited the concerto—to a point. Lang Lang’s interplay with the winds and horns, who drive most of the melodic material, was precise and invested. He took visible enjoyment in doubling gestures from the oboe, or echoing moments from the clarinet, flute or horns.

His first movement cadenza—he created his own, with a nod to the late Hungarian pianist Lili Kraus—was lyric and lovely. It might have been too long, but nobody cared. Languid and lush, with a compellingly developed line, it took on the character of a song, rather than a variation of the concerto’s themes. 

His volume (he hardly lived up to his Bang Bang moniker here) was so quiet at times as to be inaudible—especially the left hand. But the playing was beautifully articulate—no muddied trills here. 

The slow middle movement deepened the collaborative atmosphere. Lang Lang frequently gestured back to the middle of the orchestra—even offering conducting gestures at some points. The stately finale includes another short cadenza, but its mood comes largely from the concerto’s initial ideas. Lang Lang captured them with understated grace.

An encore—a Chopin nocturne—did nothing to change the sonic landscape: deeply spaced notes, sublime and as soft as could be.

Nelsons programmed Tchaikovsky’s inviting Fifth Symphony to close the program. There were many highlights, but certainly the sturdy and carefully shaped playing by principal horn James Sommerville won’t soon be forgotten. His recurring figure, which guides everyone in the second movement, invigorated the entire orchestra.

And William Hudgins’s clarinet line, deep in the instrument’s lowest register, which began the symphony and re-enters frequently, created an effect at once alluring and foreboding. 

It wasn’t the crispest opening night performance ever—Nelsons seemed to take more than a few measures off, letting his players set the pace. But with a mellow mood already established, a reserved reading of this melodic worked seemed a good way to forget the turmoil offstage.

Focusing on the music of Leonard Bernstein, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood season continues through Aug. 26. For tickets and information visit www.bso.org or call 866-266-1200.

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