Say what you will about the merits versus drawbacks of Daylight Savings Time, but the combination of early darkness and soggy streets on Thursday evening probably didn’t make leaving the house an enticing notion for some music lovers. Symphony Hall looked around half full when Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu strode to the podium and raised his baton on this week’s program, but the end of each piece was greeted with enthusiastic cheering. For those listeners who did come out, braving the gloom was worth it.
Lintu, who recently assumed the chief conductor position of Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Orchestra, has guested with the BSO twice previously. Last time he led an evening of music from Europe’s northlands, which ended up being the final program the orchestra performed there before the pandemic shutdown. This week’s repertoire didn’t have an immediately obvious theme, but taken as a whole and imbued with Lintu’s limber intensity and violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos’s quiet brilliance, the evening unfolded into a musical meditation on impermanence.
The concert started off with a cut from the BSO vaults in Peter Lieberson’s “Drala,” a 1986 commission from the orchestra and then-music director Seiji Ozawa, albeit one that the orchestra hasn’t played since then. The title refers to a concept, introduced by the composer’s Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, of opening one’s self to transcendent experiences in the everyday. The initial moments conjured a silvery dreamscape with cascades of bells; later on there was an intriguing, warmly chromatic dialogue between cellos as alto flute murmured in the background and a triumphant, rhythmic mantra to conclude. However, the clamorous episodes that punctuated the score felt claustrophobic, and on the whole the piece sounded more like a discombobulated string of episodes, which felt much longer than the 15 or so minutes it actually lasted.
First-time shakes? Perhaps. Some passages sounded like they’d have benefited from more focused punch and less speed.
By contrast, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto with soloist Kavakos flew by. To those who find the music of the Second Viennese School intimidating, the Berg concerto is a wonderful place to start and a rewarding one to revisit. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius, who had died of complications from polio that same spring at age 18. “To the memory of an angel,” reads the dedication, and Kavakos introduced the plaintive initial theme with broad strokes, laying a childlike and innocent foundation for the finely sculpted phrases that followed.
Kavakos has become Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma’s go-to piano trio partner as well as a frequent flyer on the BSO’s soloist roster in recent years, and as long as he keeps showing up with his signature sprezzatura, that probably won’t change. Every phrase he plays is obviously deeply thought out without sounding effortful; he puts on a show without letting anyone see he cares about how anyone perceives it. The approach keenly suited the Berg concerto’s diptych of elegy for Gropius and broad meditation on death and transfiguration, with an interweaved J.S. Bach chorale anchoring the rawer second movement to the earth. When the woodwinds joined in with that hymn, their dulcet, even timbres uncannily mimicked a baroque organ.
I don’t recall if I’ve ever seen Kavakos play anything but solo Bach as an encore in the past few years. Rarely is that inappropriate in any context, but on the heels of the Berg concerto, the Sarabande and Double from Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B minor was the perfect coda. Significantly longer than the typical wham-bam-thank you Boston encore, it felt like a bonus piece on the program. Kavakos held the audience rapt, and by the look of many faces, the orchestra’s musicians were similarly taken in.
The second half was devoted to Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, a paroxysm of passion set to music. When he wrote the first draft in 1841, the composer was newly married to his wife and unstinting supporter, Clara, after years of familial strife (her father objected to the union). By the time the piece debuted in 1852 after significant revisions, Schumann was exhausted, and his mental health was significantly deteriorating. Lintu channeled those layers of manic bliss and explosive uncertainties through his baton, practically levitating off the podium as he and the orchestra took a breathless joyride through the score.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Symphony Hall. Nov. 9. Repeats Nov. 11. www.bso.org