Let’s start with the most important takeaway from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday evening homecoming performance at Symphony Hall. The BSO’s ushers and box office staff members deserve a standing ovation just as loud and enthusiastic as the full-throated roar that greeted the BSO musicians as they took the stage. Thanks to that undersung staff, an almost-full house of eager patrons was able to buy tickets, have vaccine cards or COVID test results verified, get bags checked and tickets scanned, pick up programs, and take seats — and the concert still started on time. Bravi, one and all.
For its grand reopening, the BSO and music director Andris Nelsons offered an homage to the orchestra’s history. The evening followed the familiar four-course meal format of overture and concerto in the first half (Beethoven’s “The Consecration of the House”; John Williams’s Violin Concerto No. 2), symphony-length orchestral piece in the second (Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra), with an intermission in between.
The orchestra initially planned for no intermissions in the first several weeks of the season, and I wish they had stuck to that. Symphony Hall’s concession coffers notwithstanding, there’s not much room to stand, sit, or exist in the building without being in somebody’s way.
At a glance, about 70 percent of the hall’s 2,625 seats looked full. I don’t know how alone I was in my crowd-shyness, but any transcendence I may have felt at stepping over the threshold for the first time since March 2020 was submerged under the feelings of my heartbeat accelerating and sweat droplets forming behind my mask. Too close, I thought several times. Too much. Too soon.
Anxiety or no, everyone there seemed thrilled to be back. Numerous familiar faces filled the seats, albeit with their lower halves covered in masks of many different colors. “We’re going to help you write the review,” joked a man in my row.
Beethoven’s “The Consecration of the House” overture was the first piece the BSO ever played on its inaugural program in 1881, and it has since then been performed at several of the orchestra’s milestones and anniversaries. After Nelsons took the podium to another round of thunderous clapping and cheering, he savored the first few chords, letting the sound bloom in the hall. Livestreams could never compare.
That callback was immediately followed by something current, as Nelsons passed the baton to Williams so the film music statesman and Boston Pops laureate conductor could conduct his own Violin Concerto No. 2 featuring its dedicatee and muse, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. The richly textured piece had its premiere performance at Tanglewood just over two months ago, and time has been kind to it. On the whole, the performance was more cohesive, and Mutter’s interpretation felt more deeply rooted, seesawing between the robust and sweet and the jagged and acidic with just a flick of her bow. Williams wielded the baton with the vitality of some conductors half his age, leaving the showiness to Mutter and the music.
Principal harpist Jessica Zhou also played a critical role as a frequent partner for the soloist, and it was a treat to hear her instrument thrumming like an electric bass, far from the glissandos and pretty percussion to which the harp is often relegated. It’s at times like this that I deeply envy my colleagues on the food desk; no one would think of asking them to put words on a page after sampling a dish only once.
This repeat listen also made the piece’s weak points more evident. The first of these is that it’s too long, second (and compounding the first) is that the final movement and a half feature the least compelling music, and the major-key ending felt tacked on in a hurry after so much chromaticism. Williams and Mutter offered an encore to the tune of Williams’s plaintive love theme from “The Long Goodbye,” with the orchestra playing backup to Mutter’s keening violin.
In the second half, Nelsons returned to the stage to lead Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a thorny and theatrical piece premiered by the BSO in 1944 after the composer was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. Even without that historical context, there may be no better piece in the repertoire to present an orchestra as both a whole organism and a constellation of distinct voices. Nelsons seemed to be on cruise control for much of the piece, but the BSO on cruise control is still the BSO, and the evening did not lack for remarkable, blazing moments. The message was unmistakable: We’re back, just like before.
Except it’s not just like before. Experiencing these colossal kitchen-sink pieces live would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. For some, it still is. The world at large is amid a critical period of transition, and with the arrival of new president and CEO Gail Samuel, so is the BSO. Thursday’s concert seemed to skip the transitions and go straight to “mission accomplished” – a lovely sentiment, but not an accurate one.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Sept. 30. Repeats Oct. 2. 617-266-1200, www.bso.org
A.Z. 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.