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Music Review

Three conductors made for three days of thrills with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood

Leonidas Kavakos played and conducted Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the BSO at Tanglewood, Friday night.
Leonidas Kavakos played and conducted Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the BSO at Tanglewood, Friday night.(Hilary Scott)

LENOX — It’s one thing to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, another to play a concerto with it, and a whole separate feat to do both at once. Doing both with satisfying results is even more difficult. This kind of double duty poses a high risk for a potentially high reward, and Friday evening at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed, violinist Leonidas Kavakos — and the audience — just about hit the jackpot.

It’s probably a safe assumption that Kavakos knows Beethoven’s Violin Concerto better than the back of his hand. More importantly, he knows what he wants from the piece. His violin sounded with silvery agility and a resonant warmth more typical of a cello. No phrase was insignificant; his performance wasn’t immaculate, but his spirit was boundless.

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Kavakos stood at floor level for the concerto. When he wasn’t playing, he held his violin in his left hand and conducted with his right. When he was playing, associate concertmaster Alexander Velinzon put forth a heroic effort to steer the ship, but the connection between Kavakos and orchestra was at times spotty. A note of caution was evident whenever they played together.

In contrast, the energy soared whenever Kavakos tore loose into the wild-ride cadenzas (his own arrangements of Beethoven’s cadenzas, from the composer’s piano-and-orchestra transcription of this concerto). The first movement’s long cadenza included a dialogue between Kavakos and timpanist Tim Genis, which sounded almost like a Renaissance dance in its open harmonies and hearty rhythm.

At last, sparks caught when soloist and string section united in the loping finale, the most locked-in movement. With more rehearsal time, could the entire concerto have been so solid? The BSO performed three individual programs this weekend, and it follows that time to woodshed with Kavakos may not have been abundant. I’d love to hear what this could be, given a dedicated week at home.

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I also wouldn’t say no to hearing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 again a la Kavakos; conducting from memory on the podium, he took it by storm. For both pieces, he placed the first and second violins on opposite sides of the podium, lending the orchestra’s sound a nimble, balanced quality with a robust bass in the middle.

Both Saturday and Sunday’s concerts adhered to the tried-and-tested form of shorter piece/concerto/symphony. Saturday evening, Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare brought bravura to his BSO debut. This program introduced the orchestra to Inocente Carreño with “Margariteña, glosa sinfonica,” an optimistic slice of Sud-Americana from 1954 that gives Venezuelan folk tunes a smooth and lush orchestral treatment.

Payare, a graduate of Venezuela’s El Sistema program, served as principal horn of its flagship Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra for a time. He seemed to pay special attention to the two significant horn solos on the program; there was the initial incantation in “Margariteña,” which was played by third hornist Michael Winter, and the morning tune that dissipates the darkness in Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, imbued with radiance by principal Richard Sebring. Neither player had a note-perfect night, but the right energy was present. Sebring’s solo in particular provided a lovely denouement for the Brahms symphony, which improved movement to movement. In between, Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky took the stage for a powerful and satisfying traversal of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a piece firmly within his wheelhouse.

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With Thomas Adès on the podium, Sunday afternoon began with Ives’s “Three Places In New England,” given a full and evocative reading by the full forces of the BSO. The second movement, Ives’s vision of Putnam’s Camp in Connecticut, let us experience the world through a child’s eyes: everything bigger, noisier, more frightening. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was alive with rippling currents under the surface.

The rest of the program was Beethoven at his sunniest. Taking center stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, soloist Inon Barnatan was an absolute delight. His intonation and phrasing were crystalline, and a sense of grounded serenity prevailed no matter how quickly his fingers flew. In the second movement, Adès led an imposing battalion of strings, facing off with Barnatan’s graceful passages. The third movement lit a fire under the pianist, and his playing took on new urgency but remained centered.

The sky was blue, the clouds cottonball puffs: an afternoon one locks away to remember in the depths of winter. It felt wrong to keep myself inside for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” so I lit out for the lawn, planted my bare feet in the grass, and inhaled deep as the principal winds traded bird calls and the strings sang out the last movement’s golden hymn of gratitude. The honey locust tree’s branches rustled, a young child called out, a single red balloon drifted upward, and I had the best seat in the house.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

At Tanglewood. Aug. 9-11.

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Zoë Madonna can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.