During a 2011 visit to Symphony Hall, the Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena joined Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the most unusual performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto I've ever heard. The pair took that exceedingly familiar piece and drained it of its imposing majesty; in its place was something more pliable, and strangely intimate.
Perhaps it's the nature of collaboration that inclines Mena, who is back with the BSO this week, toward rethinking the familiar. On Thursday he accomplished something similar, if less radical, with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, this time in the company of the superb German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. Instead of the icy monumentality one expects, Mena had the orchestra sounding warmer and soft-edged. The textures seemed three-dimensional, as he pinpointed each unusual color within.
Zimmermann's playing was well integrated with the orchestra, with an interiority that at times seemed to undercut the flamboyant virtuosity of the solo part. Many violinists break up the lengthy first-movement cadenza with dramatic pauses; not so Zimmermann, who seemed to see the whole thing one long, ghostly arc. The second movement moved forward without overt sentimentality, and the finale was a marvelous game of hide and seek.
It was not a perfect performance; there were occasional slips and some balance issues. But it was, once again, the kind of reworking that reminds you how much can be done with core repertoire. As an encore, Zimmermann played the prelude of Bach's E-major Violin Partita.
On the second half was Schubert's "Great" C-major Symphony. It was an intriguing pairing, the concerto's concentrated essence a sharp foil for the symphony's "heavenly length," in Schumann's famous phrase.
For the most part Mena emphasized lyricism and spry rhythms over sharp contrasts. Accents were gentle and tempos ran to the middle, neither dragging nor charging ahead. The music never really grabbed you with existential force, as Christian Zacharias's version of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony three weeks ago did. But Mena managed the feat of getting a lot of detail from the orchestra, which played superbly, without letting the momentum flag.
It was only in the last movement — usually the symphony's weak link — that the performance took flight, and it was fascinating to hear the other three movements sound like a prelude to the dashing finale. At several points Mena appeared to dance on the podium; judging from the tapping feet and nodding heads around me, many in the audience would have happily joined him.
The performance was dedicated to Mayor Thomas Menino, who died earlier that day. "He touched the lives of many," said the BSO's managing director, Mark Volpe, from the stage before the concert, "including those onstage and in this hall."