The Hungarian master György Kurtág once explained that he could not write in response to commissions — only in response to life.
I thought of Kurtag’s approach while reading the story behind Unsuk Chin’s compelling new violin concerto, given its American premiere on Thursday night by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In her case, Chin was lucky. She could write in response to both.
As she explained, after completing her first violin concerto, which won the coveted Grawemeyer award, Chin had no plans to compose another. She even had a personal rule against writing more than one concerto per instrument; the orchestra is too large for double-dipping. But then she encountered what she calls the “burningly intense . . . impeccable and completely focused” musicianship of violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Well, maybe she had another violin concerto in her after all.
“Scherben der Stille” or “Shards of Silence” is the subtitle of Chin’s Violin Concerto No. 2, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, the BSO, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus. True to its name, it is more jagged-edged and fractured than her first concerto but no less arresting in its writing for the solo violin.
The piece is cast as a single organically connected movement with many subsections totaling roughly 30 minutes (including a knuckle-busting cadenza). Chin spins it all out from a single five-note cell played by the violin in the opening bars. Along the way, she clearly honors the genre’s expectations for virtuosity while at the same time renewing them with fresh sounds and colors.
Kavakos was back at Symphony Hall to introduce the work, which was no light responsibility. The solo part is dauntingly chock-full of vaulting passagework, glassy harmonics, and gnarled double-stops — music that in lesser hands might have sounded inventive but dry. Instead Kavakos’s playing was laced with all the urgency and ardency he might have brought to a work by Brahms.
Chin’s orchestral writing in the new work is nuanced and resourceful, rarely competing with the solo line. On Thursday night, Andris Nelsons directed the BSO’s attentive performance, which the audience in turn greeted with a robust ovation.
After intermission came Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a perennial crowd favorite and a kind of party piece for the orchestra. Nelsons led what was overall a vibrant performance, more visceral than elegant. His approach to this music has an appealing spontaneity but his direction also felt less focused at times, the coherence of Berlioz’s well-groomed forest occasionally lost for those phantasmagorical trees.
The night opened with Charles Ives’s much loved, mystically searching work “The Unanswered Question.” A query for orchestra that Ives conceived over 100 years ago, it remains, at last check, unresolved — and ever-timely.
An offstage choir of hushed strings lays down the background hum of the universe, over which a solo trumpet (here the pure-toned Thomas Rolfs) repeatedly lofts up “the Perennial Question of Existence.” A group of onstage winds tries to reply but, to their increasing consternation, they cannot agree.
The piece’s simplistic concept might invite some gentle mocking, but Ives’s earnestness of inquiry, and the radiance of his wonder, defeats all skeptics. So does his compassion for his fellow questioners. We’ve been at it a long time.
On Thursday, conducting duties were divided between Nelsons (offstage) and BSO assistant conductor Earl Lee, and the score’s spell was deftly cast. With Rolfs playing from a distant balcony, all of Symphony Hall was canopied in softly mysterious sound.
The music stretched out like a night sky. And the audience, as ever, listened in the dark.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night