In the doomscrolling vortex that was Twitter in the first month and a half of the pandemic, pianist Igor Levit made his page an oasis of stability. Most evenings from March 12 to May 2, 2020, the Russian-born pianist set up his phone in his Berlin living room, went live, and broadcast a “Hauskonzert” to viewers around the globe, who were able to interact with each other via Twitter’s chat feature. These were some of the first socially distant musical events of the pandemic era, and by 2022 standards they seem downright primitive: The footage is pixelated, the audio sometimes tinny, especially when Levit hits a fortissimo. It didn’t matter. It was music, and it was live: just one man and his piano trying to make some sense of a world spun off its axis. There were few greater comforts.
Comfort was also the order of the day in Thursday evening’s performance of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as Levit made his Symphony Hall debut alongside Hong Kong-born guest conductor Elim Chan, who was leading the orchestra for the first time. Pre-pandemic, Levit visited Boston for a solo recital and also appeared twice with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, but Thursday’s showing indicated he’d opened up a new chapter in his approach to performance. Unchanged is his habit of exploding off the bench at the end of a phrase, as if all the leftover energy needs someplace to go, but his control of dynamics and attacks is even more fine-tuned than the last time I saw him.
One of the Olympian solo’s simpler passages evoked a music box sounding with silvery clarity above the swelling orchestra, which Chan adeptly steered and shaped. The second movement scherzo was unhurried at first, as Levit lent a pensive feeling to the forward drive of the music; the slow burn toward greater intensity was almost unnoticeable until the horns threw down a martial cadence, which Levit answered with a gymnastic passage of almost impossible delicacy. In Levit’s hands, these quiet passages didn’t have the steel core with which so many orchestral soloists play pianissimos. Thursday’s usually felt solid but pliant, like a flower petal, though at times that translated to “inaudible.”
Principal cellist Blaise Déjardin graced the slow third movement with a warm amber-tinted solo. Levit followed up the fizziness of the finale with a meditative encore: Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s prelude for organ, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.”
The conductor and soloist weren’t the only ones making important debuts: With Thursday’s performance of “Pulse,” the BSO performed its first-ever piece by Brian Raphael Nabors. Like Levit and Chan, I hope that name shows up on another BSO program before too long. Crackling and teeming with life, “Pulse” was music for and of fireworks. Instruments adopted dazzling camouflage: Strings imitated winds, a harp masqueraded as a guitar, and animal noises abounded, all against the backdrop of a steady heartbeat pulse that sometimes took center stage and other times faded into the background. The thumping beats of house music and the skittering vocalisms of beatboxing synthesized with the wide-eyed wonder often found in John Williams’s film music, an early inspiration for the composer.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, often called the “Little Russian,” was also thoroughly delightful. The symphony’s nickname arose after the composer’s death and originates in a historic nickname for Ukraine, one that should probably stay in the history books given past and current geopolitical concerns. Many of its themes do derive from Ukrainian folk music, which the composer likely heard while visiting his sister, who lived in the countryside near Kyiv — and with established Russian composers including Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov gung-ho to create a new national music rooted in Russian pride, conditions were ripe to launch the symphony to success.
Clocking in at around 35 minutes, the symphony itself is “little” in length compared to the psychodramas of the composer’s later symphonies, but nothing else is little about it. Chan conducted the mighty themes with cyclonic energy, accenting the vigorous rhythms of the scherzo. The final movement was a whirlwind through several variations on a first-class earworm of a folk tune, and every one seemed to vibrate with anticipation of a better world coming.
And I was full of excitement as well, though for an entirely different reason. I don’t remember the first time I saw a professional conductor who looked like me; without a doubt I was aware that not all conductors were men of a certain age with wild manes of “conductor hair” a la Bernstein, Ozawa, or any number of maestros past and present, but I’m not sure if I saw a woman on a podium until college. Thursday night, a young Asian girl with her hair in a high ponytail sat in her mother’s lap in the row behind me, and she watched a young Asian woman, sporting the same hairstyle, conduct the BSO. Here’s to a world where more children can see themselves holding the baton.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Saturday. bso.org