The little things about life in the time of coronavirus grow more noticeable by the day. At Thursday evening’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, automatic hand sanitizer dispensers greeted crowds as they entered Symphony Hall, a man one row behind me fretted about the virus’s supposed greater impact on males, and when guest conductor Hannu Lintu bounced onto the stage, he greeted acting concertmaster Tamara Smirnova and associate Alexander Velinzon with a friendly elbow bump instead of the customary handshake.
Giggle we might (and we did) but it’ll be a miracle if elbow-bumps and more diligent handwashing will be the full extent of COVID-19’s impact felt in the concert hall. Travel warnings have already been issued for the hardest-hit countries around the world, including many classical music hot spots. Milan’s famed La Scala opera house has been shuttered until March 8. Musicians in Japan and Switzerland have been playing to closed houses while audiences watch online or on TV. And it was recently announced that the acclaimed Australian composer Brett Dean is being treated for the virus. Globetrotting at breakneck speeds is a reality of life for many composers, conductors, and soloists; if and when more countries impose their own restrictions to control the spread of the virus, cultural organizations may have to get creative.
We, the listeners, may be the lucky ones. Just a flick of the baton, or a push of the Play button, and we can travel anywhere in space or time without leaving our seats. This week’s destination at the BSO was the European northlands, and the most exciting stop on the musical tour was unquestionably Iceland, as the orchestra threw itself at its first ever piece by the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
There is possibly no other composer working today who is so adept at channeling the massive forces of nature, and given a full orchestral sound palette to play with, she goes wild. Writing lines that ride the knife edge of order and chaos and giving poetic but direct suggestions to the musicians, she immerses listeners in eerie, irresistible landscapes of sound.
“Metacosmos,” which premiered in 2018, was inspired by thinking of the journey through a black hole and what might await on the other side. With Lintu at the helm, the orchestra traversed a sea of wonders. Massive whirlpools opened under the gaping thuds of the bass drums, the violins’ glissandos seemed to sprout spiky crystals of ice, and the sound pitched and rolled from one side of the orchestra to the other. (Wisely, the violas were placed on the outside, emphasizing the effect.)
The ominous mood dissipated, briefly, for two sudden shifts into sweetness, with the strings playing medieval motets and chants as sung by the northern lights. I was ready to listen to it three more times as soon as it ended — thanks to WCRB, we can for the next month — and I’m ready to hear her music take up half the program.
South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho then made his BSO debut starring in Prokofiev’s spectacular Piano Concerto No. 2. He showed himself to be a deliberate and thoughtful player, but after he glided in with a graceful mezzo-piano entrance, his range of expression was surprisingly narrow. Every phrase had gravity, but many of them had too much of it; there wasn’t enough room from his baseline to build tension so it could be snapped.
The delicate air of those first measures returned in brief, breathtaking moments, but his performance wanted for the middle ground between that and the great weight of the rest. The finale was strong, with Cho and the orchestra side by side in all the heart-pounding hill sprints one could ask for. Afterward, Cho proved he did in fact have that expressive spectrum with Debussy’s “La fille aux cheveux de lin”; solo playing is a whole different animal.
The evening closed out in guest conductor Lintu’s native Finland with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. Leading this vivid rendition, Lintu was in his element — encouraging the arcadian first movement to breathe without dragging the tempo, bringing the volume down to let principal oboe John Ferrillo’s airy and mournful solo ring out, and accenting an uneasy buzz in the strings during the long, spiraling second movement. That Andante bogged down in its multiple false endings, but the Vivacissimo picked up the torch and ran. If a conductor doesn’t get a standing ovation after the heroic finale, something has gone horribly wrong; for Lintu and the BSO, everyone stood right on cue.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall. Repeats March 7. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.