In recent years, former New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert has made semi-regular visits to Symphony Hall, typically with some intriguing repertoire up his sleeve. This week is no exception, as he leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in works by rarely spotted composers Lili Boulanger and Wilhelm Stenhammar in addition to the world premiere of a new BSO-commissioned piano concerto by New York composer Justin Dello Joio.
Thursday night’s program opened with Boulanger’s “D’un Matin de Printemps,” one of her last works completed only two months before her death in 1918, at age 24, from intestinal tuberculosis. Boulanger’s reputation has long been overshadowed by that of her sister Nadia, who became one of the great composition teachers of the 20th century, counting among her students Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson, and Astor Piazzolla.
But Lili’s compositional gifts were indisputable — she was the first woman ever to win the prestigious Prix de Rome — and this brief post-impressionist work hints at the prodigiousness of the talent that was cut short. Full of taut and slightly piquant woodwind writing, the work’s contrasting themes, at least in Thursday’s evocative performance, create an atmosphere of tension, poignancy, and teeming spring-like effervesence, all within five succinct minutes of music.
Stenhammar’s symphonic-length Serenade in F, written during the same period, proved a thoughtful complementary pairing. Inspired by this Swedish composer’s visit to Italy, it suggests a Mediterranean sensuousness recalled through a cooler northern European sensibility. At Tanglewood in 2021, Gilbert had led the BSO in the orchestra’s only other performance of this score, and Thursday night’s enveloping, elegantly atmospheric account seemed to build on that previous exposure. Succinct the work is not, but Gilbert and the BSO made a persuasive case for this music’s even-tempered ebullience and grace.
Dello Joio wrote his new score “Oceans Apart,” for the estimable American pianist Garrick Ohlsson. This is the first music by Dello Joio that the BSO has performed, though both Charles Munch and Erich Leinsdorf led works by Justin’s father, Norman. According to the composer, the title “Oceans Apart” is a kind of multivalent metaphor referring at once to the concrete political phenomenon of vast polarization in the country today, and to more personal matters of artistic aspiration, the gap separating, in Dello Joio’s words, “where I find myself and where I wish to be.”
In real terms, Dello Joio’s writing for orchestra is fascinating and highly resourceful, with a vast palette of percussion, airy whispering string figurations, and ear-catching textures achieved through purposefully non-synchronized effects in the brass and elsewhere. The soloist and orchestra often appear on the verge of achieving a unity of intention that never quite occurs. At other moments, the piano is nearly swamped by the orchestral sound.
Indeed the composer in his program note evokes the image of a surfer nearly consumed by towering 100-foot waves, and this aptly describes the edge-of-the-seat quality to the work, in which 20 minutes of music pass by in what feels like a fraction of the time. The work also makes fierce demands of its soloist with acres of densely knotted and unrelentingly brisk passagework, but Ohlsson’s performance was a tour de force combining tensile strength and flexibility with a clear rhythmic profile. From the podium, Gilbert masterfully shaped the BSO’s rendering of this densely layered score.
It’s a shame that a thinner crowd turned out on this rainy weeknight. Nevertheless, as if emboldening us for the damp voyage home, conductor and orchestra ended the night with Dvorak’s festive “Carnival Overture,” dashed off with zest and highest spirits.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Jan. 14)