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Magical start to BSO’s Shakespeare series

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Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe performing with the BSO and Andris Nelsons at Symphony Hall on Thursday.
Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe performing with the BSO and Andris Nelsons at Symphony Hall on Thursday.(Winslow Townson)

When it comes to programming a subscription season, symphony orchestras can all too easily slide toward a creeping week-by-week sense of routine, especially given the dominance of a few canonical composers. (This week: Mozart! Next week: Brahms! And after that — wait for it — Beethoven!)

Obviously the school of one-off programming can and often does deliver satisfying individual concerts. But it can also make it difficult for any ensemble to build a sense of a sustained collective journey, or to shape a listener's experience such that it adds up, over the course of a season, to something more than the sum of its parts.

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Against that backdrop, orchestral mini-festivals bring a welcome sense of freshness and unpredictability. And so I'm happy to report that the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night embarked on its most focused and ambitious mini-festival of recent years. Dedicated to celebrating Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death, it spans over three weeks of subscription programs, and includes a generous serving of related chamber concerts and other offerings under the banner of the BSO's "Insights" series.

Music director Andris Nelsons, back on the podium, raised the curtain on the festival Thursday night with a program nicely built around "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It began with Weber's classic Overture to "Oberon," continued with Hans Werner Henze's Eighth Symphony, and ended with Mendelssohn's much-loved Overture and Incidental Music for the same play, in a new stage adaptation directed by Bill Barclay. The program was, appropriately, dedicated to the memory of Kurt Masur.

Henze, an avant-garde and politically engaged German composer who died in 2012, may not be the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of Shakespeare and music, but this composer's three-movement Eighth Symphony was indeed inspired by "A Midsummer Night's Dream." There is no specific text, but he attempted in this score to conjure the sensibility of particular scenes from the play. The music does so brilliantly, albeit in a challenging and complex compositional language. Still, Henze completed the work in Italy and the music brims with the sensuality of place.

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The middle movement of the Eighth is built around vividly contrasting music representing Bottom (clumsy and crass) and Titania (elegantly shimmering), and Nelsons and the BSO brought out these contrasts to delightful effect in Thursday's alert reading. The fact that this score was commissioned by the orchestra and premiered here in 1993 made its inclusion an inspired choice.

But the work that seemed to draw the most immediate response from Thursday's crowd was the Mendelssohn, no doubt thanks in part to an imaginative stage adaptation that reunited the score with selected moments from the play it was meant to illustrate. Barclay, a Weston native who serves as the director of music at Shakespeare's Globe in London, fashioned a theatrical frame involving Mendelssohn as both a young boy and as a mature composer at work on his score. Gradually scenes adapted from the play take center stage, and we hear from Titania (Karen MacDonald), Puck (Carson Elrod), Oberon (Will Lyman), and a boy (Antonio Weissinger).

The costuming, props, and video projections made this a more elaborate production than I've seen the BSO take on before in Symphony Hall, and made me wonder about extending this semi-staged approach to the orchestra's future opera projects. In this case, the musical performances were also eloquent on their own terms, including those of soprano Amanda Forsythe (in a strong BSO debut), mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Not everything in the staging was equally persuasive, but overall, it was wonderful to sense the energy and the oxygen it brought to the hall. "Shakespeare 400" is off to an auspicious start.

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BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

At: Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday)


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com