While this week’s BSO program was planned over a year ago, it took on heightened resonance Thursday night given both the continuing tragedy in Ukraine and the pandemic.
On the podium was Anna Rakitina, the BSO’s energetic 32-year-old assistant conductor. When she was appointed in 2019, it was widely noted that she was only the second female assistant conductor in the orchestra’s history. These days another facet of Rakitina’s background tends to be highlighted: She was born in Moscow to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother. In the face of the violently reductive nationalism that is daily on display, her biography points toward the deeper cultural hybridities woven into the history of both Russia and Ukraine.
As it happened, an analogously hybrid musical example comprised the first half of Thursday’s program. While Rakitina was born in Russia to a Ukrainian father, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto was born in Ukraine to a Russian father. Indeed, while he epitomizes Russian music for many concert-goers — and presumably for that reason his 1812 Overture was recently axed from a program by the Cardiff Symphony — Tchaikovsky had deep personal ties to Ukraine, as Harlow Robinson emphasizes in this week’s program note. His sister Alexandra lived in Kamianka (in central Ukraine), and her husband’s estate there became, as Robinson puts it, “a kind of second home and refuge for the chronically wandering composer.” That’s in fact where the Second Piano Concerto was completed in 1880.
At this point, you may be thinking: Wait, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? His First is so ubiquitous and widely beloved that it’s typically referred to among pianists as the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Nor would you be disabused of the one-concerto notion by hanging around Symphony Hall at any time in the last, say, eight decades. The Second has not been performed there since 1940.
Critics love to champion unjustly neglected works, but I will reserve my pleas for other works; the Second is an unwieldy score with a charming second movement but an overall ratio of bombast to eloquence that has not aged well. What the piece does offer, however, are abundant occasions for ferocious virtuosity, of which French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, in his BSO debut, took full advantage. With blazing technique and supple musicality, Kantorow was fully equal to the work’s show-stopping first movement.
Its slow middle movement interweaves solo lines for violin (here, Alexander Velinzon) and cello (Oliver Aldort) with the piano’s own soliloquizing, and on Thursday these passages bloomed like rhapsodic chamber music. Kantorow’s hurtling, rhythmically incisive account of the “con fuoco” finale then sparked a near-instantaneous ovation, which the pianist in turn acknowledged with two encores — arrangements from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” and Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”
After intermission came Ellen Reid’s “When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist” — whose title makes it sound like a score conceived for our own pandemic-befogged brains but in fact it was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in February 2020, just before the lights went out. Still, Reid’s description in her note — “a musical landscape of exhausted and disembodied questioning” — scans well enough for today.
Downward spiraling instrumental lines are central elements in that musical landscape, as is a punchy repeating rhythmic pattern that unifies the score. Three solo sopranos (here Eliza Bagg, Martha Cluver, and Estelí Gomez) float pure-toned, post-minimalist vocal lines. In Rakitina’s confidently directed account, the music built up a hazy expressive potency before fading away in its final bars with a quiet poetry, as if into the night sky.
Sibelius’s one-movement Seventh Symphony rounded out the program, conducted by Rakitina with clear expressive sincerity and vigor, though perhaps thanks to her tendency to lead from slightly ahead of the beat, this performance was somewhat rough around the edges. It grew more interpretively cogent as the symphony progressed, ending with the kind of long-held silence that sets everything before in sharp relief.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Saturday.