As with any art form, commemoration in music has much to do with horizons of memory, with the distance or proximity to the event being recalled. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, its ravages were intensely recalled by the generation of brutalized soldiers, and the families of those who did not return. Music itself, it was thought in some quarters, might be used as a balm to heal not only psychic wounds but also the aural trauma of war, the acoustic roar of the trenches. In this spirit, the first movement of John Foulds’s “World Requiem,” an early memorial that premiered in 1923, exudes an all-enveloping sense of stasis and calm.
These days, however, a full century since that war, commemoration is of course a more complex affair. When the American composer Sebastian Currier was asked to write a commemorative work for the 100th anniversary of World War I, he responded with a piece called “Divisions,” which seems a meditation on our distance from the event as much as on the event itself. Currier writes in a program note that he sought a connection “to the present or even the future as much as . . . to this time of unbridled destruction.” The piece, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and the National Orchestra of Belgium, received its East Coast premiere at Thursday night’s BSO performance in Symphony Hall.
The work’s nonlinear, jump-cutting style is evident from its opening minutes, in which somber, slowly drawn chords are offset by fast, jagged, and aggressive string riffs. Eerily oscillating pitches suggest a siren perceived in nightmarish slow motion. A lone trumpet ponders in the void. Currier’s orchestration is resourceful, and he proves adept at maintaining narrative tension across the sharply contrasting terrain. Even at the very end, the composer resists a sense of closure, as the music dissolves into a landscape of rustles, sighs, and silence.
On Thursday music director Andris Nelsons drew a well-characterized account from the orchestra, emphasizing the weight of this score’s empty spaces and the sharp edges of its vehement attacks. Thomas Siders played the ruminative trumpet solos with care.
The rest of this week’s program returned to popular staples: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. In the former, the thoughtful German pianist Lars Vogt served as soloist, bringing to the outer movements a fiery and visceral approach that magnified dynamic and rhythmic contrasts. But it was the rapt lyricism of the sublime Largo that proved the most rewarding. This movement, equal parts melody and reverie, always seems to inhabit its own private island off the coast of the rest of the concerto. Here the music was well-served
by Vogt’s poetically inflected phrasing,
his many fine gradations of piano, and
his knack for conjuring a distant opalescent sound.
Given how frequently the Brahms symphonies turn up on programs here, another performance might easily come across as dutiful or canned. Not this one. The orchestra played excitingly for Nelsons, who found the wistful note of serenity in the first two movements and infused the finale with a sense of forward momentum and a bracing exuberance.
The season continues next week with what should be one of its highlights: two concert performances of Strauss’s opera “Elektra.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor.
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Friday and Saturday)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.