It’s been said that reading a poem in translation is a bit like kissing a bride through a veil. Yet what a veil Kaija Saariaho has given us in her exquisitely drawn “Circle Map,” a new work for orchestra and electronics that builds out — in many concentric circles — from six stanzas of poetry by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi.
The Persian verse itself was of course translated, in the literal sense, in the program book for Thursday night’s US premiere of this work by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Yet what Saariaho has done in her work was a deeper kind of translation, at once vaporizing these texts and making them strangely tactile. She has done so by building her work on a recording of the Persian artist Arshia Cont reciting the Rumi quatrains in their original language. Then, employing a strategy she has used in many electro-acoustic works, Saariaho digitally refracted the recorded voice and composed a full orchestral score around it, one that is keenly attentive to the granular surface details of the recording. You can think of it as high-modernism at play with digital sound art, rendered with an extremely refined ear, a formal rigor, and a sensual French-inflected timbral palette.
Saariaho’s works can occasionally bog down beneath the weight of their own abstraction, but in “Circle Map,” the straightforward (if mystical) poetic texts unlock the piece and make it one of her most accessible orchestral scores. The first movement titled “Morning Wind” is carried on wisps of woodwind melody; “Circles” overlays brass riffs and myriad small repeating gestures. The final movement, the most striking in its gentle lambent light, imagines what Rumi meant by a “quiet, bright reedsong.” The Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena led the BSO, which co-commissioned the piece, in a richly atmospheric performance. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra gave this work’s world premiere in a reclaimed industrial space in Amsterdam, but on Thursday, the elegance of Saariaho’s music felt right at home in Symphony Hall.
The new score was followed by a performance of Britten’s seldom-heard Violin Concerto, with Gil Shaham as soloist. Shaham’s wondrously frictionless technique proved equal to this daunting piece, though he seemed to approach this dark war-shadowed music from the outside in, leaving one to wonder how well it ultimately suits his own interpretive temperament. Immediately following the work’s powerful closing bars, as the music was still sinking in, Shaham broke the weighted silence before Mena himself.
After intermission, the program leapt breezily back into the 19th century, with Mena leading a buoyant and nicely profiled account of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony.