It’s always an exciting time at Symphony Hall when a conductor makes their first outing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The same can be said about the programs that show up every so often when the evening’s star soloist comes from inside the house, giving a BSO musician a turn at the front of the stage. Thursday evening featured both at once, as American conductor Roderick Cox (a newcomer to the Symphony Hall podium) stepped on stage alongside the BSO’s veteran principal clarinetist, William Hudgins, to begin the night with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major.
For this week’s program, which also included Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, several of the principal players and the entire low brass section got to take the night off. Compared to the enormous orchestra that will fill the stage for next week’s Mahler symphony, the ensemble was positively pint-size. But don’t be fooled: This program isn’t filler.
If anything, it was a strong argument for more programs like it — in scale, if not necessarily size. So much of the classical music industry relies on the assumption that star soloists and conductors can hop on a plane without a thought, and that the listeners who love them will travel to hear them. Cox, who was based in Berlin, took this gig in the wake of COVID-19-related visa trouble for Dutch conductor Ton Koopman, who is not the first guest who has canceled this season because of issues at the border. Might the general environmental impact be lessened if a few more special guests per season could take the T (or more likely, Amtrak) to Symphony Hall? If Hudgins’s showing on Thursday was any indication, such a change would not be at the sacrifice of quality.
Hudgins’s performance was technically pristine, temperate in expression but never monochromatic. To our ears, the clarinet is an indispensable part of the orchestra, but to Mozart, the instrument was still a novelty, and the solo part offers plenty of playful turns — no cadenzas, but plenty of athletic runs and arpeggios, which the soloist sailed through with style. The solo melody of the softhearted second movement was as lovely as any of Mozart’s finest arias, and when a full chorus of strings picked it up, they met Hudgins with equal richness and warmth. Cox took the piece at an agile tempo, drawing a light and zingy sound from the orchestra.
Before the third of three bows, Hudgins seemed to encourage Cox to come out again with him. It looked like it took some convincing, but the young conductor and veteran clarinetist came out together, each gesturing to the other to take his bow first.
Given that, Cox could have already probably bought a return ticket to Symphony Hall, but he sealed it in the second half with a thoroughly satisfying take on Mendelssohn’s third symphony, often called the “Scottish” Symphony. Performances of this symphony are not rare; memorable performances of it are, and Cox showed his finesse with taut but unstrained pianissimos and consistently unflagging energy. For all its outbursts, much of the “Scottish” symphony is very quiet, and Cox clearly knows well that volume and intensity are not always directly proportional. Clarinetist Thomas Martin presented several fine solos, one leaping into the busy scherzo and one dirgelike hymn near the end.
My only quibble with Cox’s treatment of the music was his choice to seat the strings in the left to right/high to low arrangement favored by Leopold Stokowski and many 20th- and 21st-century conductors to follow, including BSO music director Andris Nelsons. I’ve often found that for 18t- and 19th-century music, putting the cellos on the outside flank feels like eating a sandwich with two slices of bread on top and the meat on the bottom. The ingredients might be the same; the experience is not. Don’t be afraid of violins in stereo!
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Nov. 13. 617-866-1200, www.bso.org