His first replacement was Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, whose earlier concerts this season have been more disappointing than not. But in Mendelssohn’s long and weighty oratorio Elijah, a specialty of Frühbeck’s, the pace was exhilarating: two and a half hours flew by. John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus, celebrating its 40th birthday, gave the best choral performance of a season that had already offered some astounding work. Soprano Christine Brewer and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (each rapt while the other was performing) sang on the grandest scale, and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey only marginally less so. And if the refined, warm-voiced Chinese bass baritone Shenyang seemed more eloquent than overpowering as the Hebrew prophet, that wasn’t exactly torture either. (I’m eager to hear him sing German lieder.)
The next replacement was Carlos Kalmar, the Uruguayan music director of the Oregon Symphony, in the world premiere of John Harbison’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (with some fascinating percussion, including marimba, vibes, and struck Mahlerian cowbells), a piece with a subtlety of interplay between the two instruments that to Harbison suggests the intimacy of a “companionable” marriage, with its complex readjustments and corrections, games of (not quite) follow-the-leader, and final (almost) synthesis. The more I heard, the more beautiful and life-affirming it got. (There’s even a country hoedown.) The superb soloists were violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler, who happen to be married to each other.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is perhaps his hardest and most mysterious. Kalmar began it as a series of relatively disconnected pieces, but once he got into the first “Night Music,” and then especially the second one, with its guitar and mandolin, things began to cohere. It was more insistent and driven than “felt-through” moment to moment, the way I remember Simon Rattle’s great 1991 BSO performance, but riveting all the same.
The following week, Julian Kuerti (not a replacement) led the last and maybe the best of his Symphony Hall concerts as assistant conductor, starting with György Ligeti’s exuberant 1951 Concert românesc (“Romanian Concerto”), a lively and melodic folk-oriented piece that relates to his later sound clusters the way Mondrian’s early landscapes were a stepping stone to his later abstract lines and boxes. Marc-André Hamelin dazzled at the isolated center of a super-streamlined version of Shostakovich’s high-spirited First Piano Concerto, and so did BSO trumpeter Thomas Rolfs. (The rest of the orchestra was all strings.) Kuerti proved again to be a first-rate Tchaikovsky conductor with the big Little Russian Symphony, No. 2, refreshingly less familiar than Nos. 4, 5, and 6, and with more-irresistible folk tunes. He “plays” the great melodies but doesn’t wallow — or sink — in them. It’s clear he loves this music.
Contemporary musicians love pianist Ursula Oppens, and in her recent residency at Harvard, she played mainly pieces written for her, by such notables as John Corigliano, Tobias Picker, William Bolcom, and Charles Wuorinen (a world premiere), plus an attractive piece by jazz-influenced Amy Williams. But what blew everyone else out of the water were the scintillating, mesmerizing brevities (2005–2008) by Elliott Carter, whom Oppens has long championed. (She recently played his complete solo piano music at Boston Conservatory.) Tri-Tribute consists of three short pieces dedicated to James Levine’s sister (the zippily contrapuntal Sistribute), brother (the moody, poignant Fratribute), and mother (the antic and inventive Matribute). Two Thoughts About the Piano contrasts Intermittences, which is all about silence and pacing, with the breathlessly non-stop Caténaires.