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At BSO, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero champions works unheard for decades

Cellist Johannes Moser, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Walton's Cello Concerto.Hilary Scott

The crowd at Thursday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra performance was notably sparse, probably because the evening’s inventory of household names was rather light: Grime, Walton, Duruflé, Guerrero, Moser (though of course that depends on your household). I’m very glad the BSO allows weeks of this sort as part of each season’s mix. But clearly the ensemble will take the associated box office risks only a certain amount of times each year, so ideally each of those “risky” weeks would have a compelling artistic raison d’etre — a reason why, although you might not know these works, you’ve just got to hear them, individually but also together in this combination.

I’m not sure Thursday’s program — a new work by Helen Grime, William Walton’s Cello Concerto, and the Requiem of Maurice Duruflé — rose to meet that collective threshold. Yet if the total was not greater than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves were each generally well-received. Notably Walton’s Cello Concerto seemed to be the evening’s surprise hit.


I say surprise only because the BSO had not performed this score in more than two decades, and Walton’s music seems to get less airtime than that of his compatriots Elgar, Britten, or even Vaughan Williams. But the work, which was written for the soloist Gregor Piatigorsky and premiered right here by Charles Munch and the BSO in 1957, boasts a rhapsodic vein of melody and two of its three movements offer abundant opportunities for virtuosic display.

Interestingly, the Concerto was born into an era when a thornier variety of modern music reigned supreme, and so Globe critic Cyrus Durgin clearly felt obliged to reassure his readers, in his review of the premiere, that the piece was “gentle as custard in its harmonic basis” and that “what dissonance there is would not alarm an elderly aunt or an old-fashioned professor of music.” One might add that since that time, modernism’s dominant myths of progress — the rules for what counts as fashionable modern music — have slipped away faster than a Shed crowd at a Sunday Tanglewood matinee, leaving our collective ears more open to the conservative craftsmanship of a figure like Walton.


In Thursday’s performance, the German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser played the opening Moderato with abundant poise, and then took the Allegro appassionato, with all its rapid figuration, at a brisk clip, telegraphing the music’s urgency by whipping bow from string at the end of several climactic passages. Costa Rican conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the orchestra met him at every turn. The finale’s variations were well-characterized and played with great finesse — enough so that the audience kept recalling Moser until he responded with an encore: Bach’s Sarabande from the First Cello Suite, in a clear-toned, soft-spoken reading.

Grime’s “Limina” opened the program. Co-commissioned by the BSO and the Tanglewood Music Center, it received its premiere last summer in Ozawa Hall. A richly layered work inspired by a scene in Tarjei Vesaas’s novel “The Ice Palace,” the piece shimmers with a duly icy radiance and then slowly morphs in texture — “Limina” means thresholds — hovering suggestively between moments of opacity and transparency. Other works by Grime have spoken in a more distinctively personal voice, but at least in Thursday’s somewhat vaguely contoured reading under Guerrero’s baton, that voice was harder to discern.


On the other end of the night, Guerrero closed the program on a note of tender supplication. Duruflé’s uncommonly serene Requiem had not been touched by the BSO since 1983, but here it received a surely paced and warmly glowing performance by the orchestra and the formidable combined forces of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir. Notwithstanding a few misjudged passages, Guerrero led with a sense of occasion. In the Sanctus movement, “Hosanna in excelsis!” burst forth with the fullest fortissimo heard in many weeks. And in the closing In Paradisum, the conductor drew out the music’s sublime tranquility, showcasing the crystalline voices of the children’s choir. During the applause, a special bow was given to cellist Oliver Aldort for his eloquent solos in the Pie Jesu, though I wondered how many of those clapping realized Aldort, age 26, also had another reason for taking a bow: he has just been named assistant principal cello of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


At Symphony Hall, Feb. 27 (repeats Feb. 29 and March 3).

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.