As we await a fuller picture of Andris Nelsons’s new-music proclivities, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s still-new music director has smartly dipped into the institution’s vast catalog of commissions. Two he has led this season were composed for Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary in 2012: John Harbison’s “Koussevitzky Said,” which Nelsons conducted in November, and Gunther Schuller’s “Dreamscape,” commissioned for the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, and making its BSO debut in the series of concerts that began on Thursday.
Schuller, in a program note, writes that the entirety of “Dreamscape” – from its structure and character down to details of rhythm and scoring – came to him in a dream. The piece, which he began writing immediately on awakening, is “what the dream composed for me.” The result is a small riot of color and polyrhythmic gestures, all refracted through a fun-house mirror. You can almost hear the composer’s subconscious at work in distortions of popular melodies and woozy brass slides. Even a middle movement that Schuller describes as “dark and somber” seemed contemplative rather than gloomy.
Schuller wrote for a large orchestra, so it was smart to join it on a program with Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben,” which calls for one equally large. Strauss’s works are a Nelsons specialty, and the composer’s immodest song of himself proved no exception.
Even more noticeable than the exuberance of the performance was its wealth of audible detail. The opening was restrained but surprisingly transparent. The pacing was expert – Nelsons demonstrated a superb grasp not only of the character of each section, but also how they fit the narrative arc.
The orchestra played gloriously throughout, brass and lower strings especially. Among many individual players recognized at the end, none received a louder ovation than concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, for his rhapsodic, beautifully inflected account of the solo that depicts Strauss’s wife.
Between those works came Mozart’s final piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat (K. 595), with Richard Goode as soloist. In contrast to last week’s boldly interventionist account by Nelsons and Christian Tetzlaff of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, this performance seemed to thrive on a productive tension between Goode’s classical poise and Nelsons’ more Romantic leanings. The same phrase could sound quite different as it was passed from piano to orchestra.
Yet the approaches worked as complementary partners. It takes a lot of care to make Mozart’s simple melodies sound as effortlessly affecting as Goode did. During the slow movement there was a passage in which only the first-desk strings played, something I’ve never seen in this concerto. It was a marvelous effect: less obvious than those in the Schuller and Strauss, but in its own way equally striking.