Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s just my own millennial impatience. But at this point, I’m going to need a good reason to willingly sit still through a 2½-hour concert — or a 2½-hour anything, really. (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you.) However, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday evening concert offered several good reasons for its luxuriant run time, two of those being conductor Philippe Jordan (making his BSO debut) and pianist Yefim Bronfman (BSO debut circa 1989). There’s plenty to love in this week’s program, which connects four generations of Russian orchestral tunesmiths — Borodin by way of Glazunov, then Rachmaninoff, then Prokofiev.
It seems only fitting that during the 2022 Olympic Games, the BSO should also present a concerto that might as well be an Olympic event: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, a 45-minute gauntlet that tests the soloist’s technical and artistic abilities to the maximum, with barely a breather to be found amid the expansive cadenzas and devilish variations. Fortunately, if the concerto was an Olympian challenge, Bronfman was its Nathan Chen.
Traces of the pianist that novelist Philip Roth dubbed “Mr. Fortissimo” 20 years ago are still visible — Bronfman can certainly bring down the thunder when he wants to. But when one listens to his vintage recordings, it’s clear that maturity has fine-tuned his approach, and he shaped the first movement’s titanic cadenza with the self-assured, steady finesse that only comes from experience. The variations of the second movement never tired either, as Bronfman imbued each with its own distinct personality — here spiky and anxious, here wistful and introspective as a Sondheim ballad — without any jarring transitions. There’s a lot going on in this piece for soloist and orchestra both, and the final two movements can easily turn into a circus, but Jordan proved to be a deft ringmaster in his first BSO outing, conjuring a pillowy background as the solo thrashed and spun about the keyboard in the finale. The cadenzas turned out to be Thursday’s only chance to hear Bronfman solo; the audience cheered him back out four times gunning for an encore, but he graciously declined.
Before the concerto, Jordan and the BSO set the stage for fireworks with the 1887 overture to the opera “Prince Igor,” begun by Alexander Borodin and finished by his colleague Alexander Glazunov, then a 22-year-old upstart, after Borodin’s death earlier that year. It’s unclear how much material came from each composer, but it’s a galloping romp and it was easy to see why Arthur Fiedler made it a staple of the Pops repertoire. (Glazunov’s compositional skills outweighed his conducting: 10 years after “Prince Igor,” a possibly drunk and definitely under-rehearsed Glazunov butchered the premiere performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1.)
The drama didn’t dial down after intermission either, as Jordan drew on selections from the three orchestral suites from Prokofiev’s beloved ballet, “Romeo and Juliet,” creating what amounted to a condensed greatest-hits snapshot of the plot. Jordan applied a clear narrative direction to the 11 excerpts, which in total clocked in at around an hour, though it felt much shorter. He conducted without a score, cueing with his eyes, his expression, and at times his entire body in addition to the slim baton. Standouts included a bracing “Dance of the Knights,” a delightfully clownish “Minuet (Arrival of the Guests)” with woodwinds tripping daintily through close harmonies, and a bone-rattling “Death of Tybalt” in which the violins’ bows seemed poised to shatter the sound barrier. If you have a friend on the fence about whether they like orchestral music, take them to this concert on Saturday or Sunday: It’d be hard to make a better case than this.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Feb. 12, 8 p.m., and Feb. 13, 3 p.m. www.bso.org