No podium. No orchestra. Just empty chairs and music stands. Where was everyone? On strike? Abducted by aliens? Finally, the stage door swung open.Tamara Smirnova and Haldan Martinson (violins), Steven Ansell and Cathy Basrak (violas), and Blaise Déjardin and Adam Esbensen (cellos), followed by Andris Nelsons, filed out and seated themselves in a tight semicircle downstage center. The stage lights dimmed and Nelsons began the evening’s program of Strauss with a warm, sinuous, sensuous perusal of the opening sextet from his final opera, Capriccio. The composer Flamand’s birthday present to the recently widowed Countess Madeleine, the sextet is not only an expression of his love but the source for much of the music which follows. Its tendrils spiral through the opera to reclaim center-stage in the Countess’ closing monologue, “Morgen mittag un elf!”

Renée Fleming with the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Renée Fleming with the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

After a brief pause for assembling the podium and rearranging recording microphones, the orchestra seated itself and Nelsons bathed the hall in the burnished glow of the closing scene’s introductory “Moonlight Music” and the ineffable beauty of Richard Sebring’s horn solo, part prayer part lullaby. Renée Fleming can summon the Countess with a slight toss of her head. Her whole demeanor changes and she becomes the keen-minded aristocrat not only faced with an immediate and perplexing conundrum but with deeper questions about the life she wants to lead. The warm luster may have cooled and long high-lying phrases might show some signs of strain and thinning of tone, but Fleming can still float a soft phrase or high note and make the dramatic most of the voice she now has. Volume, however, was variable with the orchestra covering much of her agitated opening lines.

The BSO dedicated this program to the memory of André Previn, a frequent visitor to Symphony Hall and Tanglewood from 1977 as composer, conductor, performer and teacher. Fittingly, he had also led the last subscription performances of these same excerpts and written an opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, expressly for Fleming. After brief remarks, she sang a melting “I can smell the sea air,” Blanche’s final aria, as an encore. Its range proved more congenial and she seemed liberated with some of the ease and characteristic weight, bloom, and richness returning to her voice, whetting the appetite for the world première of the BSO- commissioned, Penelope at Tanglewood this summer, a Previn/Tom Stoppard collaboration for soprano, string quartet and piano written with Fleming in mind.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

From moonglow to sunburst; from Strauss’s final opera to one of his first successes, the tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra. If you can successfully banish the image of bone-tossing Neanderthals and mysterious, polished monoliths from your mind, you can appreciate Strauss’ brilliant scene-painting in the opening segment, the most cosmic and awe-inspiring depiction of a sunrise by any composer. The low rumble which begins Zarathustra was felt before it was heard and then built by Nelsons with broad and open ecstatic gestures to the unison fanfare of trumpets playing perfect intervals and announcing the dawn of a new world of vast promise and majesty. A deep yearning and sense of mystery rose from the rounded, ripe string tone in “Of the Afterworldly, “ swelled in the billowing waves in “Of the Great Longing” and didn’t subside until “The Tomb Song”. The remaining episodes were highly contrasted with the fugue of “Of Science and Learning” a streak of quicksilver and Tamara Smirnova’s characterful waltz in “The Dance-Song” rustic and a bit clumsy as if the dancer’s excess of emotion short-circuited control of his feet.

Capriccio ended inconclusively with Nelsons eliciting a series of jovial shrugs and winks to express the Countess’ doubts about the primacy of words over music or vice versa. 45 years earlier, Strauss ended Also sprach Zarathustra in similar doubtful fashion with contention between the two dominant keys- the violins insisting on B while the low strings resolutely counter in C and eventually silence the violins suggesting humanity might not eventually prevail over nature. Nelsons gave quiet weight and serenity in the face of ambiguity to the exchange befitting the more cosmic context of the tone poem.