In his early conducting visits to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the composer Thomas Adès showed a knack for curating intellectually and artistically vibrant programs, and then executing them at a high level. The positive chemistry generated by those early outings led to the creation of his new position as BSO artistic partner.
As Adès took the stage on Thursday night for the Beethoven-and-Ligeti first half of his program, the concrete value of this relationship felt palpable. For starters, the BSO now has a widely respected creative figure among its own senior artistic ranks — which projects its own symbolic message about Symphony Hall as a place for not only re-performances of older works but also first-order generative art. And secondly, there is now a deeper context for Adès’s own continued work in Boston. Local audiences are getting to know him well, as are the players of the orchestra. Only a few days earlier, Adès had been performing alongside several of them at a Boston Symphony Chamber Players program in Jordan Hall.
Overall, the entirety of Thursday’s program left a favorable impression, but the performance of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto was a real revelation. Dating from the early 1990s, Ligeti’s work has already established itself as a landmark late-20th-century score — but BSO audiences have had only one chance to hear it before, when Christian Tetzlaff played it in 1997.
The piece itself is a fascinating hybrid of the grand concerto tradition (think virtuosic display, soulful lyricism) and the wildly avant-garde, with hazy unconventional tunings, natural harmonics, ancient choruses of ocarinas, and soundscapes that glitter like shattered glass.
As you might expect given that combination, the score is enormously complex and punishingly difficult to perform. It’s also music that has to be experienced live to fully absorb its astonishing colors. On Thursday night, the gifted young violinist Augustin Hadelich tore into the work with all the expressive intensity he might have brought to the Brahms Violin Concerto. And for his part on the podium, Adès led with an authority born of a fellow composer’s intimate and admiring knowledge of the piece’s inner workings.
That knowledge ultimately bore fruit in more ways than one. Ligeti leaves a spot in the fifth movement where the performer is invited to interpolate his or her own cadenza. It turned out Hadelich was in luck — Adès composed his own cadenza for the Ligeti Violin Concerto in 2013; and on Thursday Hadelich gave its American premiere. The cadenza is masterful in the way it ventriloquizes Ligeti’s voice, folds organically into what comes before and after, and at the same time ratchets up the level of virtuoso display by several notches. Hadelich’s account was explosive.
When such an exquisitely imagined score is given a performance as forceful as this one, it carries an audience to a very special place. So it was a slightly jarring afterward when Hadelich promptly shifted gears and pulled out a much more conventionally violinistic encore — Paganini’s Caprice No. 21. The playing was assured and the gesture itself was generous. But the concept of negative space matters in music as much as it does in visual art. The most eloquent encore, on this occasion, might have been silence.
After intermission, Adès conducted a recently assembled suite of music from his 1995 opera, “Powder Her Face,” based on scenes from the life of Ethel Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll. In its original incarnation as a leanly scored chamber opera, this was a sassy, jazz-tinted work from a brilliant 24-year-old composer intent on sounding his own notice of arrival.
Now, more than two decades later, even after having risen to the very top of the field, Adès clearly retains an affection for this audacious music of his youth — the early piece that, in a way, started it all. The new “Powder” Suite is a much more sonically opulent affair for a giant symphony orchestra. Yet the music retains much of its brash confidence and allure. The orchestra gave it a deluxe performance.
Bookending Thursday’s program were thoughtfully vivid accounts of two repertoire staples — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Stravinsky’s “Divertimento” Suite from his ballet “The Fairy’s Kiss.” Cumulatively, the evening may have been somewhat overstuffed, but in the manner of a banquet at which you wouldn’t want to miss a single course.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Thomas Adès, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 25 (repeats Jan. 27)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.