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Nelsons, Opolais bring BSO season to a close

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Andris Nelsons leads soloist Kristine Opolais and the BSO at Symphony Hall.Michael Blanchard

When it has not recently been the norm, a state of institutional calm can itself feel like news.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's 2015-16 subscription season pulled into port on an even keel Thursday evening. No eleventh-hour hijinks or substitutions. The orchestra will be packing its bags soon for a return to Europe, its second tour in nine months. Its next Deutsche Grammophon recording is due out soon. Three retirees took their bows; four new hires have been announced. In a welcome return to earlier practices, music director Andris Nelsons attended the final rounds of their auditions. A new Artistic Partner position has been created, to be filled this fall by the gifted composer Thomas Adès.


Best of all, the orchestra has been playing as if committed to its own ruddy health. As close BSO-watchers over the last decade know, not one of these developments should be taken for granted.

As if to underscore the institutional mood, Nelsons welcomed his wife, Kristine Opolais, back to the stage as vocal soloist with an orchestrated version of Rachmaninoff's "Zdes' khorosho" ("It is fine here"). This is a brief song beloved by sopranos for its winged melodies that telegraph a kind of poised satiation of the spirit. Despite a few passing balance issues, Thursday's account hit its mark. And then Opolais quickly returned to the stage for a more substantive offering: the famed Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin."

Opolais was very much in her element here, her soprano radiant with dusky colorings, while dramatically, too, she inhabited the role of the young Tatiana coming to terms with the stirrings of her deep love for Onegin. Nelsons the opera conductor was in his element as well, nimbly supporting her impetuous confessions. The scene's final pages featured some of the most engaging playing of the night, distinguished by Keisuke Wakao's plangent oboe and Richard Sebring's glowing horn.


The rest of the program, in truth, had a less meticulously curated feel. It was in fact all-French, though why we were hearing this particular combination of works — Dutilleux's "Métaboles, Debussy's "La Mer," and Ravel's "La Valse" — was less apparent. The Dutilleux account, clear and atmospheric, came as part of a welcome season-long tribute to the centenary of the composer's birth. But stacking two French works as iconic as "La Mer" and "La Valse" one on top of the other seemed a bit like programming Beethoven's Fifth to be followed by his Ninth.

No complaints however about the performances both received. "La Mer" was vibrant and richly drawn, especially in its central sketch, "Play of the Waves," while "La Valse" had both a more centered feel and a wider expressive range than the performance Nelsons led a few years ago on his first visit to Tanglewood.

At the end of Thursday's program, the year's three retirees — assistant librarian John Perkel and violists Robert Barnes and Kazuko Matsusaka — stood to take their bows before a large and appreciative crowd. Collectively they have devoted nearly a century of service to the orchestra. It also seemed symbolically meaningful to have an actual BSO music director present for this year-end farewell ritual, rather than a guest conductor, as has been the case almost without exception in recent years.

For his part, Nelsons, ever the communitarian, gamely grabbed a seat — in Barnes's spot — and joined his colleagues' applause from the middle of the viola section. The small gesture was striking, because you almost never see a conductor seated within the ranks of his own orchestra. At the same time, in many ways, it seemed a fitting image at the close of this second Nelsons season.



At Symphony Hall, April 21 (repeats April 22 and 23)

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