Friday night’s BSO program, curated and conducted by the British composer Oliver Knussen, had the exploratory energy and distilled interest of roughly a full month of typical subscription concerts, all packed into a two-hour stretch. Of the four works presented, two were by Knussen himself, and none of them had been previously performed by the BSO.
For Knussen’s “Whitman Settings,” scored for soprano and orchestra and written in the early 1990s, the composer chose four brief poems varyingly ethereal in subject matter, and fashioned for them concise yet beautifully evocative musical worlds. On Friday the accumulation of glittering orchestral details at times rendered Claire Booth’s elegant soprano as just one instrument within the mix, but what a mix it was. It’s tempting to extend the imagery of the cycle’s first poem — “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” — whose narrator abandons a science lecture to gaze in silence at the night sky. Knussen’s music seems to cast him as both learned astronomer and instinctive stargazer, alert to the complexities of craft and to the simplicities of found beauty.
So it likewise appears in Knussen’s Violin Concerto, written in 2002 for the soloist Pinchas Zukerman, who was on hand to dispatch this work with skill and tonal warmth, especially in its surprisingly songful middle movement. The piece’s finale brims with energy, spinning a virtuosic solo against a precisely shaped orchestral backdrop. In case these introductions to his own works did not offer enough food for thought, Knussen on Friday also set out to tweak our notion of Russian musical history. Or at least that was the effect of opening with the powerfully dramatic Symphony No. 10 by Nikolai Miaskovsky, a largely overlooked Russian composer who wrote stacks of intriguing symphonies during the interwar period and beyond.
Knussen closed with Mussorgsky’s popular “Pictures at an Exhibition” yet he led it in the rarely encountered “re-slavicized” version done by Stokowski in 1939: darker and more characteristically Russian. The BSO was in brilliant form, and with Mussorgsky’s beloved melodies reassigned to different instruments, the music took on wonderfully strange and surprising colorations. The effect was a bit like approaching a familiar city skyline from a road you never knew existed.