The BSO’s new music offerings have had an anglophilic bent this month, with performances of works by two leading British composers: Thomas Adès, whose “Polaris” was heard two weeks ago, and Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose “Speranza” (“Hope”) received its American premiere Thursday night in Symphony Hall.
On the podium was another Brit, the conductor Daniel Harding in his BSO debut, pairing the Turnage work with Mahler’s orchestral song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). There are some suggestive links between these two works, but the pairing was ultimately not very flattering for Turnage’s new piece, a BSO co-commission.
Known for his jazz-infused works and for his operas (including “Anna Nicole,” recently performed in New York), Turnage has here written a symphony in all but name. He originally conceived the work as a memorial to iconic writers who had committed suicide, but he eventually decided it was better cast as, in his words, “a positive piece about hope.”
Even so, a residue of gloominess seems to have never quite left the work, and its first, second, and fourth movements, while thematically distinct, share an overall brooding heaviness that not even this composer’s formidable skills as an orchestrator, or his occasional mining of folk music, can make entirely involving or emotionally persuasive. The movement titles — the word “hope” in Arabic (“Amal”), German (“Hoffen”), Gaelic (“Dochas”), and Hebrew (“Tikvah”) — also don’t get Turnage very far, suggesting an overarching universalism-through-difference that this music does not bear out. The score seems to diffuse its energy as it goes, rather than accumulating its rhetorical force. All of this said, the skill and craftsmanship here is beyond question, and the wonderful third movement gives a sense of what might have been. Harding had everything in its place, and Martin Robertson offered charismatic solos on both soprano saxophone and the Armenian duduk.
Any performance of Mahler’s “Das Lied” is an occasion, as a whole of course, but especially for its final movement of transcendent farewell. In Webern’s words, it was “written by someone who already sees earthly things from the highest heights, already drifting away.” There were some striking details in Thursday’s reading, courtesy of Elizabeth Rowe’s eloquent flute solos and the distilled expressivity in the oboe playing of John Ferrillo. There was an uncentered quality to tenor Michael Schade’s performance, but mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sang with poise and dramatic immediacy. Conductors grow with this music their entire careers. Harding’s reading at this point had moments of admirable precision but did not yet have the multidimensionality and emotional generosity, the sense of meaning accumulated through Mahler’s myriad details, that make the best performances of this work unforgettable.