As anyone who’s ever gone on a date could tell you, first impressions are important, and they don’t always tell you everything. If a curious concertgoer was to pick any Boston Symphony Orchestra concert this season, would they be treated to an eclectic program like the sweet mélange that the BSO offered on Thursday evening’s opening night? Not necessarily. Music director Andris Nelsons, now embarking on his sixth season on the job, has proved himself a creature of habit. The three-course meal of shorter piece, concerto, and symphony is still his typical fare.
But would the orchestra’s musicians sound as alive and engaged as they did Thursday? Let’s hope! Maybe even the BSO is feeling the back-to-school buzz.
Except for the world premiere by Providence-based composer Eric Nathan, all this week’s music — Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and his Gloria — was first played by the BSO under the baton of Charles Munch, the Frenchman who served as music director between 1949 and 1962 and considered a quarter of a concert “truly the minimum” that should be devoted to new music. (In his 2012 review of D. Kern Holoman’s biography of Munch, this paper’s Jeremy Eichler quipped that any modern BSO music director candidate who even proposed such a scheme would not get the job.)
But Munch would have approved of this opening night. The audience got a quarter of new music, and a remarkable quarter. Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra falls into a lineage of similar pieces for orchestra, most famously one by Bartók, in which each section is handed a moment that shows off its best qualities. And Nathan’s new piece, a love letter of sorts to the orchestra, began with an explosion. The brass section blared like car horns, and built up, then toppled towers of open intervals. When the ruckus dissipated into delicate tones with the strings at the forefront, the piece invited listeners to notice the subtleties in each sonority. Everyone needed to think like an ensemble player and soloist all at once, including Nelsons, who smartly shaped the piece’s arcs. I’d happily have heard it over again as soon as it ended, and I’m hoping the premiere won’t be the last time the BSO plays it.
The rest of the program brought to mind another Munch-ism, from his first press conference in Boston: “There will be joy.” The concert itself kicked off with Poulenc’s double-piano concerto, itself a stylistic mélange with a touch of Mozartean sun and a swirl of mossy gamelan-inspired modality. Dutch pianist brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen’s playing was needle-precise, clean and crisp as their identical drum-major jackets.
In many ways, Beethoven’s showy Choral Fantasy sounds like Symphony No. 9’s baby cousin: its treatment of an easily singable (if not so memorable) theme, the appearance of a chorus at the end, the jubilant text. The seams show in the hastily written piece, which Beethoven intended as the all-hands grand finale to a concert of his works (sources indicate that the premiere was a train wreck). But all in all, it’s an enjoyable experience. Arthur Jussen, handling the piano solo that runs through the piece, played with jaunty flair that darkened to vehemence. At the back of the stage, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus came out swinging, singing from scores with gusto, and a solid sextet of Tanglewood Music Center vocal fellows took the solos.
Poulenc’s “Gloria,” given its world premiere nearly 60 years ago by this orchestra with soprano Adele Addison, was the concert’s spirited closer. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s lyric voice sometimes got lost under the orchestra and chorus, but elsewhere it sparkled through with cloud-light ease. In the fifth section, “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” she allowed her voice to float through wide intervals toward the top notes, where other sopranos might have pounded it. The TFC wasn’t stumble-free, falling off the skipping rhythm of the second section a few times, but sang with confidence and gusto. And just like Munch wanted, there was plenty of joy to go around.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall Sept. 19. Repeats Sept. 21, 8 p.m. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.