LENOX - The past weekend's Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts at Tanglewood offered an informal travelogue of nationalist musical style. With Sunday's program marking the BSO debut of assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung, the two concerts were also the first since James Levine's surgery that did not require personnel substitutions; no doubt, BSO administration was glad for an excursion that finally matched its itinerary.
Leonard Slatkin was Saturday night's guest conductor, starting with Ralph Vaughan Williams's folksong-based "Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus,' " displaying that composer's most recognizably British manner - actually an inspired marriage of Elizabethan modality and sonorous close-formation French Impressionist harmonies. The performance was unvaryingly rich, soft-edged, and glossy.
Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto genially deploys Russian (or, perhaps congruently to Western ears, Tchaikovskian) color in its final two movements. But here, the near-Mozartean first movement was the most interesting. Tackling the formidable solo part, Midori combined absolute technical assurance - economic bowing, taut tone, breathtakingly fast, clear passagework - with an intensely dramatic reading of extreme rubato, and close-up, note-for-note detailing of phrase. The contrast with Slatkin's staunchly classical accompaniment was sometimes compelling - the orchestra's sleek elegance in even the stormiest passages against the violin's tension in even the most peaceful. In the breakneck finale, however, the push-pull drastically undercut Tchaikovsky's snowballing, hurtling climaxes.
There followed the invented Americana of Aaron Copland's epic Third Symphony. Slatkin fashioned an admirably big performance - big sounds, big contrasts, big gestures that gave full rein to Copland's complementary Stravinskian harmonic grit and native optimism, the former a bulwark against the latter's temptation toward facile pieties. It's a potently American distillation - hard-headed and dissonant, sentimentally nostalgic, all in equal measure.
Sunday afternoon's concert featured Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 ("Italian"), the 20-something composer's early-Romantic romanticization of the Mediterranean: sun-bright bel canto melody, a bit of local ceremony, a whirling, unfettered final dance. Boston Symphony assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung, making her BSO debut, led a gorgeous performance, with broadly shaped architecture, fleet operatic momentum, and deftly polished details. Her baton was calculated though graceful; her grounded podium presence and rapport with the orchestra made for a warm, sparkling escape.
That concert opened with Robert Schumann's "Manfred" overture, a dark and stormy descent into Byronic gloom; the sustained line was equally in evidence, but the focus on forward motion diminished moments of dramatic pause, depriving the music of gravity. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson then reprised his March appearance at Symphony Hall in Schumann's only Piano Concerto, which unusually expends its virtuosic energy on intricately filled-out lyricism rather than fireworks. In some ways, Ohlsson's consummate ability - his consistently deep tone, sagacious phrasing, and ever-present sense of untapped power - domesticated Schumann's idiosyncratic extremes, effortlessness dissipating eccentricity. But in compensation, Ohlsson and Sung emphasized the work's expansive generosity: an inviting, interior landscape of musical possibility.
At concert's close, orchestra and audience enthusiastically saluted a retiring quartet of BSO brass: trumpeter Peter Chapman, horn player Daniel Katzen, and trombonists Norman Bolter and Ronald Barron.