Most Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductors come and go discreetly these days, but Thomas Adès arrived this week a bit like a one-man weather system. On Thursday night, the supremely gifted British composer-conductor-pianist led the first of three performances of a program featuring his own Genesis-inspired piano concerto alongside music of Prokofiev and Sibelius. On Saturday, he’ll conduct his opera “The Tempest” at the Met before leading the evening BSO performance in Symphony Hall. Then on Sunday, for his day of rest, he’ll make a cameo at the Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert to perform the piano four-hands arrangement of Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” alongside this week’s BSO soloist, the excellent Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein.
If this kind of week brings any trepidation for Adès, it was nowhere in evidence at Thursday night’s generously expansive program, which seemed to have a rare thoughtfulness of conception behind it. Building from his own creation-themed piano work “In Seven Days,” Adès reached out along two axes — toward another creation myth (Sibelius’s mysterious and coolly beautiful tone poem “Luonnotar”) and toward another primally inventive piano concerto from a century ago (Prokofiev’s First). Then the evening ended with Sibelius’s fascinating Sixth Symphony, in a texturally rich, organically drawn performance that seemed to enclose the night in its own elusive poetry.
Opening the evening, Dawn Upshaw was the soloist in “Luonnotar,” its text taken from the Finnish Kalevala epic, relating a strange tale of a wandering goddess who gives birth to the world from the sea. Some singers allow the story to remain on the level of suggestive archaic myth, but Upshaw expertly rendered the solo line with both gleaming tone and a sense of palpable emotional investment.
Adès’s “In Seven Days” takes a more granular, street-level view of the birth of the world, distributing the seven days from the Genesis story into seven teeming movements, inspired more metaphorically than pictorially by the events they describe (”Chaos-Dark-Light,” “Separation of the waters into sea and sky,” etc.) A circular path is implied by the use of a passacaglia-like form, with the music at the end sending us back to the beginning, but the effect is still more of spiraling forward than any kind of eternal recurrence. Adès also plays ingeniously with layering music of multiple speeds, with the soloist and portions of the orchestra moving in and out of sync, passing each other like cars in different lanes on a highway. Like so much of Adès’s music, there is here both intellectual rigor and a sensuality connected with the mercurial surfaces of sound itself. As soloist, Gerstein (reading the score from an iPad assisted by a foot pedal) gave a rhythmically deft, wonderfully rhapsodic account of the solo line.
He was equally impressive in Prokofiev’s brashly virtuosic First Piano Concerto, a work once seen as thumbing its nose at older Romantic sensibilities. Adès seemed to have a sassy, proudly postmodern take on this early modern score, and Gerstein’s playing had all the aggressive machine-tooled precision and sonic bite the piece requires, together with a suppleness of rhythm that made the performance feel less like interpretation than, well, creation.