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Coming from the BSO, music of Still, Strauss, and Sibelius satisfies

Violinist Lisa Batiashvili performed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the BSO and music director Andris Nelsons on Oct. 14.
Violinist Lisa Batiashvili performed Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the BSO and music director Andris Nelsons on Oct. 14.Aram Boghosian

For anyone who has paid attention to the landscape of American orchestral music in this first post-shutdown live season, it’d be hard to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra as doing anything but playing it safe. However, safe and satisfying are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and Thursday evening’s performance of music by Still, Strauss, and Sibelius was thoroughly satisfying. If the first week of programming leaned on the orchestra’s legacy, this week the BSO and music director Andris Nelsons played to their present strengths.

The first half offered two unfamiliar pieces by familiar composers. There are apparently no available recordings of William Grant Still’s 1965 “Threnody (In Memory of Jean Sibelius),” which should be corrected as soon as possible. The short and very sweet tone poem braided a militaristic and stoic funeral march with a gently lilting lament, the strings’ sighs and syncopations recalling the traditional spirituals that Still mined for his most enduring works.


Strauss’s Symphonic Fantasy on his opera “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (The Woman without a Shadow) was fantasy in the most literal sense. The first bars hit like a battering ram, spearheaded by the three-pronged fury of tuba, trombones, and timpani, but this quickly dissolved into a vivid, sparkling tapestry of artfully blended themes from the opera, with sonic textures so thick and plush that the Symphony Hall seats seemed to grow softer. Near the end, Toby Oft’s solo trombone tenderly cradled a melody sung in the opera by the loyal Dyer, for which he received well-deserved bravos during the applause.

Surprisingly, this was the first BSO performance of this exact piece, though former music director Erich Leinsdorf did arrange his own suite from the opera. I’d be even more surprised if it was the last, given Nelsons’s love for Strauss. As the composer’s pieces go, I’d place it solidly in the upper middle tier; it’s undeniably beautiful, but one can only experience so many shattering apotheoses before they start to blur. To quote Stephen Sondheim, “if life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one.”


Violinist Lisa Batiashvili clearly knows this, and demonstrated that knowledge with adept grace at center stage for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. The concerto asks for terrific finesse in both technique and expression, and an unfortunate number of performances either give the latter short shrift or overcook it. But in this, Batiashvili didn’t just walk the line; she danced on it, landing sylphlike on the first phrases and proceeding to lead what could have been a masterclass in performance.

The concerto is full of possible capital-M moments, and Batiashvili made the most of them all by doing less with some. Here, a phrase took on a shining, angelic cast; there, its repetition was shaggy and stormy, as the forces of heaven and hell seemed to battle it out on her fingerboard. The solo violin’s yelps and whoops channeled the grotesque without stepping over the line, and octave double stops were so unified as to sound like some otherworldly pipe organ. Against this, the orchestra took on an almost adversarial role, as first Steven Ansell’s viola, then the cello section, buzzed ominous answers to the searching solo passages.

The final movement — famously described by Donald Francis Tovey as a “polonaise for polar bears” — took off at a relaxed gallop and stayed there, giving the soloist ample breathing room for spice and syncopation. As an encore, Batiashvili sent everyone home with more double stops and a homage to her native country of Georgia with Alexi Machavariani’s zinging, frenetic “Doluri.” What’s she eating for breakfast, and can I have some?



At Symphony Hall, Oct. 14. Repeats Oct. 16. Oct. 19 performance features Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” in lieu of the Sibelius concerto.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. 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.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.