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Music Review

Ophelia’s new music, in her own words at BSO

Soprano Barbara Hannigan with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Thursday.Michael Blanchard

Occasionally a Boston Symphony Orchestra program arrives brimming with the distilled musical rewards of several typical subscription weeks combined. Thursday was one of those nights. With a full orchestral concert featuring a major local premiere, preceded by a meaty and thematically linked Insights chamber program, it was easily one of the BSO season’s highest peaks.

The orchestra is now in the second of three weeks celebrating music inspired by Shakespeare on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Thursday’s program featured vibrantly idiomatic accounts of excerpts of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” as well as a well-pointed traversal of some fascinating and rarely encountered incidental music Shostakovich composed for an audacious 1932 production of “Hamlet.” But at the center of this program was the enthralling first Boston performance of a new work for soprano and orchestra by the composer Hans Abrahamsen titled “let me tell you.”


The work’s texts are taken from Paul Griffith’s most unusual Ophelia-inspired novel by the same name. In the spirit of the high-modernist composers Griffiths has championed as a critic, his book courts creativity through self-imposed constraints: The entire novel was written using only the roughly 480 words spoken by Ophelia in “Hamlet.”

The results, rather than gimmicky, suggest a flinty strength grounded by unadorned simplicity. “Let me tell you how it was,” the soprano sings in the work’s opening lines, “I know I can do this. I have the powers: I take them here. I have the right. My words may be poor but they will have to do. There was a time when I could not do this: I remember that time.”

Of course Abrahamsen’s Ophelia has more than words at her disposal. She has music. This outstanding score has already received wide recognition and the prestigious Grawemeyer award. It is well-deserved. Helping to create an atmosphere at once dreamlike and crystalline, the text remains oblique yet resonant as it explores themes of memory, love, time, and the infinity of nature across three extended parts. And all the while Abrahamsen unfurls a wondrous range of complexly imagined soundscapes, each of them put to the service of disarmingly personal expression.


In a way, both Abrahamsen’s music, in its relation to tradition, and this new Ophelia, in her relation to her Shakespearean counterpart, come across as haunted by their pasts but not captive to them. At one point in the vocal writing, Mozart’s Queen of the Night seems to be looking over the soprano’s shoulder, and the finale breathes the air of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” But the overall compositional voice here is utterly individual. It is also inseparable from a certain sense of wisdom, a way of dissolving the perceived tension between vulnerability and strength in floes of coolly glittering sound.

Thursday’s premiere received an ovation of an intensity rarely witnessed for contemporary scores in Symphony Hall. This was thanks in no small part to the transfixing performance of the soprano Barbara Hannigan. To describe Hannigan as singing bravely and luminously from memory is accurate but also just the beginning. This soprano, who was deeply involved in the genesis of the commission and has now sung it with 11 different orchestras, inhabits this music like a home. In her hands the vocal line’s strange pulsations seem not like stylized artifice but an utterly natural reflection of the music and text’s co-created aura. It is an aura of confession addressed inward more than outward. We are hearing its echoes.


From the podium BSO music director Andris Nelsons, who gave this score’s premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic, surpassed in sensitivity his own recent recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, particularly in the delicacy of a remarkable passage near the end of Part II after the soprano has described “showers of light, light that cannot end.” Nelsons also held the enveloping silence at the work’s close for longer than I have ever heard done with a contemporary score. The fact that no one in the hall broke the silence prematurely with applause — as so often happens — attests to how widely this music had registered. When Nelsons finally put down his baton, a call of “bravo” rang out from the center balcony. My thoughts exactly.


Andris Nelsons, conductor. At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (orchestral program repeats Friday and Saturday)

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.