One hopes that the years bring new depths of insight for all conductors, but it’s not every maestro who also sustains his inquisitive, exploratory energies well into his ninth decade. Christoph von Dohnanyi, who turned 86 this fall, might easily choose a path of less resistance and tailor every one of his guest appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the spirit of a program he led last season, devoted to three celebrated Mozart symphonies. Would there really be complaints from the audience, the players, the management, or the box office?
But Dohnanyi — politely yet firmly, one imagines — has declined to relax or to bask in the ambient glow of his own eminence. He has returned to the BSO this week not only with a hard-hitting 20th-century score by Bartok — the iconic Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta — but also with a world premiere. And not just any world premiere, but that rarest of things: a Symphony Hall premiere of a BSO-commissioned work by a composer who is only 28 years old.
The orchestra tends to take interest in young composers almost exclusively in the contexts of the Tanglewood Music Center or the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. The last time the BSO itself played a single note by a living composer under 30 years of age — in a subscription program at Symphony Hall — was nearly two decades ago. That performance from 1999 was a work by Thomas Adès (“Living Toys”) and it was neither a BSO premiere nor a commission. The figures speak for themselves.
This week’s challenging new work is by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, a promising French composer who also has built up a substantial career as a pianist. Titled “Aube” (“Dawn”), it suggests a slowly arriving daybreak, painted almost pointillistically with an expansive range of orchestral colors and sonorities. Brass players are instructed to remove their mouthpieces and breathe into them. The strings build with trills to an ear-catching climax. The flutes send up wispy jet whistles. The quality of the audience’s attention on Thursday throughout this complex but appealing score spoke well for Neuburger’s abilities.
Bartok’s landmark Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta typically casts a spell all its own through its heady mixture of formal rigor and freewheeling expression. Dohnanyi’s reading was taut, well-characterized, calmly electric. After intermission came Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with the German pianist Martin Helmchen. Without sacrificing detail or precision, he brought out a sense of inner rhythmic propulsion in Beethoven’s piano writing, especially in the outer movements. His phrasing was supply shaped without being mannered. And Dohnanyi, for his part, was with him every step of the way.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Friday and Saturday)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.