Music from Russia and the Baltics takes center stage this week at Symphony Hall. For his final set of subscription concerts before the new year, music director Andris Nelsons has assembled a commendably exploratory program full of music that will be new to most local audiences. Of the four works on the program, the only repertory staple in the mix is Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
Thursday’s program opened with the premiere of a work by Latvian composer Arturs Maskats entitled “My River runs to thee…” co-commissioned by the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Beyond the fact that Nelsons leads both of these orchestras, this new work arrives with a web of additional connections to the conductor’s past. Maskats was artistic director of the Latvian National Opera when Nelsons got his start there as a trumpet player and, eventually, as the company’s music director. “My River” is also dedicated to the memory of Andrejs Zagars, who served as general director of the Opera and was a mentor to both Maskats and Nelsons.
The work takes its title, and a portion of its inspiration, from the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The score itself is for the most part earnestly lyrical and atmospheric, bookended by plaintive woodwind solos from clarinet (Thomas Martin) and English Horn (Robert Sheena). Lasting about 15 minutes in length, the music makes its points with a pared back simplicity and directness of statement, though unpitched percussion pricks the ear and intricacies of craft churn below the smooth surfaces in a way not entirely unlike Dickinson’s poetry. In Thursday night’s performance, Nelsons and the BSO launched the new work with sincerity and care.
On the other end of the evening came the BSO’s first Symphony Hall performance of Shostakovich’s Second Symphony. A mixture of art and artifact, this is, in musical terms, an uneven score written in 1927 by a brilliant young composer, only 20 at the time. It is brimming with fresh ideas yet at the same time encumbered by a baldly propagandistic text in praise of Lenin and the October Revolution. The work’s strongest moments are its most audacious ones, its meticulous cacophonies and noisy carnivals of sound. Such moments suggest an early airing of a more radical voice Shostakovich would soon channel into his bracingly absurdist opera “The Nose” and would continue developing through his mighty Fourth Symphony — after which point it was thoroughly stomped out of him. The Second Symphony’s weaker moments come in its rather forced choral writing. Near the end, Shostakovich drops the pretense and simply has the singers shout the words: “October!” “The Commune!” “Lenin!” As his career progressed, he would need to get much better at faking it. He both did — and didn’t (see the Twelfth Symphony).
Notwithstanding a few patchy sections, the orchestra here was generally on its game for Nelsons. So was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which happily had a second opportunity to shine on this week’s program thanks to Galina Grigorjeva’s “On Leaving,” a substantial and challenging eight-part setting of texts from the Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church. This score, a meditation on mortality by a Ukrainian-born, Estonian-resident composer receiving her first Symphony Hall performances, embraces through modern means the timeless inflections of traditional Eastern Orthodox sacred music. The performance, led by TFC conductor James Burton (with solo contributions from flutist Elizabeth Ostling and tenor Matthew Anderson) was compellingly shaped, sonically rich, and utterly haunting.
Rounding out this otherwise unusual program was Tchaikovsky’s perennially beloved Violin Concerto. On Thursday it was given a vividly dispatched, technically adroit rendition by the 18-year-old, Swedish-born violinist Daniel Lozakovich. He is clearly a gifted player with a bright future, and he won a cheering ovation on Thursday night. But let’s pause here for a moment. He is only 18. Naturally, he played with a fraction of the deeper mastery beyond the notes — the poetry, the larger expressive arc, the self-inhabiting of a particular point of view — that this very same violinist, I predict, will be capable of bringing to this very same work once he has more experience, in music and in life. Isn’t it then fair to wonder why we are hearing him now — and not then?
I am wondering, in other words, in our proudly bewokened cultural moment, whether it’s not perhaps finally time to rethink classical music’s enduring obsession with prodigies. The critic Joshua Kosman also recently raised the subject by asking, when orchestras, managers, and recording companies send children and teenagers out to entertain us on professional stages, “whose interests are really being served?” This is clearly a larger topic to revisit on another day; for now, I’ll leave you with a couple of provocations from pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who on the topic of prodigies once said, wryly yet pointedly, “Do you want yourself to be operated on by a genius twenty-year-old heart surgeon? Do you want to go to the theatre and see a teen-ager play King Lear?” Why should it be any different with music?
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (program repeats Saturday and Tuesday, and in a shorter version, Friday night)