In his final season as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “Artistic Partner”, Thomas Adès was again the protagonist of a memorable event at Tanglewood. He started the afternoon with his own several-minutes-long Shanty – Over the Sea. A very recent work for string orchestra, it is another example of the composer’s ability to use textures and rhythms to build a very personal universe, without necessarily sounding modernistic or representing a certain style. In Shanty, as many as 15 distinct instrumental voices intone slight variations of a melody meandering in and out of what seems to be a misty seascape, anchored by persistent but nonobtrusive pizzicatos. Sounding a tad oriental at the beginning, and recalling the second movement of Adès’ recent Dante, the music gradually fades away into mysterious silence.

Leonidas Kavakos, Thomas Adès and Antoine Tamestit
© Hilary Scott

The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola is arguably the greatest score written while Mozart was still in Salzburg. It is full of novelties that were more evident to his contemporaries than they are to a modern audience: the orchestral violas are divided into two parts; the tension is increased via a scordatura tuning, writing the viola part in D major with the strings tuned up a semitone; the emphasis is placed on the different timbres of the solo violin and viola, not on the instruments’ range. From the unusual emergence of the solo instruments from the tutti, in the first movement, to the brusque and very Mozartian switch from the gloom and melancholy of the Andante to the insouciant Presto, it is a wonderous score.

Sunday’s soloists were Leonidas Kavakos (replacing Pamela Frank) and Antoine Tamestit. Between the innate elegance of the violinist and viola phrases that were full of gravitas, every aspect of their collaboration was superb. In a balanced performance, they neither exaggerated in seeking out dark undertones in the Allegro nor in overplaying the virtuosic brilliance and élan in the third movement. In the central Andante, the dialogue between the two sounded like an operatic love duet full of yearning, a suggestive anticipation of the slow movement in Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 22, written in the same C minor key.

Thomas Adès conducts the BSO at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

Led by assistant concertmaster Elita Kang, the BSO displayed the same remarkable cohesiveness in Holst’s The Planets (requiring a large ensemble with 10 double basses) as they did in the more modestly scored Mozart (employing just three). Given his focus on composition, one tends to forget what a formidable conductor Adès is. His gestures were not only precise but also elegant; his sense of balance was exquisite. He conducted Holst’s popular, seven-movement suite with both aplomb and reticence. From the initial dissonant build-up in Mars, to the combination of solo violin, flute, harp and glockenspiel in Mercury, to the unusual contribution of a female chorus (here the Lorelei Ensemble) in Neptune, he drew attention to details in Holst’s score, pointing out real or just perceived influences (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy). Interestingly enough, even if he brought individuality to each of Holst’s sections, the conductor was less successful in underlining the hazy, mysterious atmosphere in Neptune, the Mystic than he was earlier in interpreting his own score. There were moments in this rendition of Holst’s celestial voyage that seemed to foretell Britten’s output, as one could find reminiscences of the Four Sea Interludes in Shanty. It reminded listeners that Benjamin Britten was not only the central figure of 20th century British music, but also a composer whose “modernistic” credentials have been often disputed.