In a welcome change of format, the Boston Symphony Orchestra tried something different this year to kick off its new season.
The larger question hovering over recent season-openers has been a familiar one: Should the event be a ceremonial occasion with a frothy gala program, or a meaty concert that signals the broader artistic ambitions of the season as a whole?
An orchestra might try to answer “both,” yet to actually deliver an evening that meets these two disparate goals is much more difficult, as recent BSO openers have shown. But this year, the orchestra wisely parceled out its agenda across two separate evenings. On Thursday night came the lavish gala party, with celebrity musical guests and Symphony Hall done up in Art Deco style; and on Saturday came the opening of the subscription season, with a substantive all-Brahms program under the estimable baton of Christoph von Dohnányi. Next year’s opener will mark the start of Andris Nelsons’ tenure as music director, so the event will likely have a different choreography, but more generally, this dual-opener format is a sensible one that the BSO would be wise to reprise in the future.
Saturday’s program began with Brahms’s outsize Double Concerto, taken on by two young soloists, Augustin Hadelich (violin) and Alban Gerhardt (cello). Written in 1887 as a kind of peace offering to the great violinist Joseph Joachim from whom the composer had become estranged, the Brahms Double has never enjoyed the ubiquity of his other concertos, but in the right hands it can still make for an enthralling ride. The most compelling readings crackle with the double-voltage electricity generated by two side-by-side soloists playing at full intensity, but they are also distinguished by a shared command of nuance that can transform the piece into a breed of chamber music presented on the most monumental scale.
Saturday’s account did not reach those levels of inspiration but it was a tonally solid and confidently virtuosic performance from two players currently enjoying burgeoning solo careers. In the many passages of rapid give and take, Hadelich and Gerhardt showed off a fluid rapport, even if their respective playing seemed at times to burn at different temperatures (Hadelich often had the bigger fire). For his part, Dohnányi took the imposing first movement at a notably stately tempo that emphasized the music’s lyric grandeur over its headlong rhapsodic qualities.
After intermission came Brahms’s Second Symphony in a broad and warmly enveloping performance, notwithstanding a few passing moments of untidy ensemble. These days Dohnányi projects a sense of accumulated insight in his approach to so much Austro-German repertoire, evident in everything from his control of large-scale symphonic rhetoric (the coda of the finale landed with particular force) to the way he attends to the innumerable small details of balance and phrasing that inform an artful performance.
On Saturday, even at its most emphatic the orchestra’s sound had a ripe and full quality, never strident. Among the highlights, the sylvan beauty of Brahms’s horn writing was strikingly conveyed by Richard Sebring and colleagues. And it was good to see the BSO’s concertmaster Malcolm Lowe back in his usual chair after a long medical leave. He returns to active duty this season, though playing on a slightly reduced schedule. (Associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, who has also been on extended leave, is due to return later this year.)
The orchestra’s fall schedule is densely packed and wastes little time: Dohnányi reprises the Brahms program on Tuesday, and then two days later, he leads the first of four performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony.