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Music Review

That steady hum for BSO at Tanglewood

Nikolaj Znaider performing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with conductor John Storgaards and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. Nikolaj Znaider performing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with conductor John Storgaards and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. (Hilary Scott)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / July 18, 2011

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LENOX - It was only the second weekend of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season at Tanglewood, but the place was already running on a relaxed summer cruise control. Stalwart veterans and younger musicians each had a night in front of the orchestra. Both programs were built around a well-known symphony and a major Romantic concerto. Soloists kept the flame on medium heat. The biggest buzz was about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was spotted in the Shed on Friday night, and the weather, which was lovely for both days.

The more interesting concert came on Saturday night, with the Finnish conductor John Storgaards replacing James Levine to make his BSO debut in an all-Sibelius program. Storgaards, who is chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, had persuasive ideas about shaping Sibelius’s vast orchestral outpourings and an ear for drawing out unusual textures. His account of “Finlandia’’ was muscular and driving and “Valse Triste’’ was equally effective, with Storgaards putting down his baton to draw out a chamber-like delicacy in the ensemble work. After intermission, the BSO sounded ragged in moments of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony - Storgaards’s choice to conduct far ahead of the beat did not make the players’ job easier - but one still appreciated the sense of elemental forces simmering below the music’s surface.

The Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider was also on hand Saturday night with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Znaider is a highly gifted young player who made two successful visits to the BSO in recent seasons, the first with a refined yet forceful account of the Elgar Violin Concerto, a piece he has recorded and made his own, and the second with an elegantly dispatched Mozart concerto.

This time his playing was equally accomplished, clean and sleekly contoured, but without a particularly strong interpretive point of view. Sibelius’s first movement is the soloist’s best chance to make a major statement with this work, to bring you under the spell of its icy fire and hold you there. At the key moments, Znaider put on display an opulent tone and plenty of stylish passagework, but the piece still came across as a series of localized events, virtuosity in search of a larger and deeper expressive commitment.

These days, Kurt Masur still has a core commitment to the central European masterworks he tends to conduct, but as his physical capacities grow more limited, he seems to rely increasingly on the aura and sheer history embodied in his physical presence to bring his ideas across, with the help of a few elbow swings and darting cues. The orchestra coasted through a warm-toned, organically phrased rendition of Schumann’s First Symphony on Friday night.

Before the Schumann, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto needed more active intervention than it got from Masur, with the orchestra sounding at times sluggish and under-shaped. Lynn Harrell was the hard-working soloist on Dvorak duty for the night. For me, the most memorable detail of the concerto performance was actually Richard Sebring’s horn solo from the introduction, which had a sylvan beauty of tone and a sense of repose all its own.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

At: Tanglewood (Friday night and Saturday night)