Andris Nelsons, usually known as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, ended his first weekend of performances with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra by pairing Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 with his First Symphony. Seldom scheduled together, it's a combination that works. The D minor concerto was initially conceived as a symphony, and for more than two decades it remained a surrogate for the substantial symphonic work that the musical world had been eagerly awaiting.

Andris Nelsons leads the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons leads the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

Both works are laced with the inescapable shadow of Beethoven and are at the same time wonderful showcases for Brahms’ efforts to make his own voice heard. Nelsons clearly emphasized the Classical components of these works (both first parts are in sonata form) as well as the Romantic élan permeating the music.

At the same time, the conductor drew attention to how the very opening of the First Symphony doesn't conform to the usual Beethovenian pattern of clearly marked thematic cells developing in time. The network of interrelated musical lines – ascending in the violins and cellos and descending in the violas and winds – sounds less like music composed by Beethoven or Schumann and more like something revived from an earlier period of Germanic music.

Nelsons, also a wonderful interpreter of Mahler's music, made sure to highlight the premonitory moments in the symphony, certainly detectable in the Andante sostenuto but most obvious in the uncharacteristically long and weighty fourth part. The way the C major horn call emerged from the minor Adagio was both sublime and somehow terrifying. The tensions between the returning horn and the accompanying dissonant chord were exquisitely resolved when the music melted into a major key.

Listening to the interpretation with eyes shut, one might have assumed that the conductor was at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There were a few sloppy entrances, some textural imbalances and some moments of roughness, but this did not significantly obstruct the conductor's overall vision, which was characterized by occasionally slower tempi leading to deep expression. Opening your eyes, you were met not with the well-versed instrumentalists you had expected but the young and enthusiastic fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. It was not just an outstanding tutti performance: several of the principals – concertmaster Peiming Lin, flautist Rachel Blumenthal, clarinetist Somin Lee, horn player Ryan Little and oboist Mark Debski – made confident individual contributions despite their young age.

Andris Nelsons (conductor) and Paul Lewis (piano) © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons (conductor) and Paul Lewis (piano)
© Hilary Scott

The soloist in Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 1 was the marvelous British pianist Paul Lewis. Renowned for his insightful interpretations of Beethoven and Schubert, he offered the Tanglewood public a version of the concerto in which expressivity was constantly favored to virtuosity. Under the watchful eye of Nelsons, the rendition of a score that started as a sonata for two pianos was less a battle between soloist and orchestra and more a true dialogue, especially in the splendid Adagio, supposedly a requiem for Robert Schumann. Lewis kept an almost perfect balance between Classical clarity and Romantic volatility from the maestoso passages to the various moments of tenderness.

If history is to repeat itself, many of the talented fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, who arrive here from all the corners of North America and from places as remote as South Korea, China, Peru, Germany, and Malaysia, will at some point play in major orchestras. Being taught by Nelsons and having the opportunity to perform under his baton will surely be an unforgettable experience for them.