CAMBRIDGE — The Russian program that Benjamin Zander put together for the Boston Philharmonic’s first program of the 2016-17 season had ominous portents. Lera Auerbach’s “Icarus” takes its title from the Greek myth of how Daedalus’s son, wearing wings of feathers and wax, flew too close to the sun and died. Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” makes copious use of the four-note “Dies irae” motif from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead. And Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony alludes to a phrase from the Russian Orthodox Requiem. Yet at Sanders Theatre on Thursday, Zander and BPO assistant conductor Benjamin Vickers made it an uplifting evening.
Auerbach was born in Russia in 1973 but moved to New York in 1991. She has said that when she was a child, Greek mythology was more real to her than a world of “bloody red flags”; the 12-minute “Icarus,” which dates from 2006, soars upward, in its ethereal violin solos, over a Shostakovichian world of clamor and pounding. About halfway through, the violin starts to float and then waltz in space. Auerbach’s palette includes bells, glass harmonica, and theremin; it all makes for a ghostly, mystical experience. Vickers allowed the piece to unfold naturally, but Dutch theremin specialist Thorwald Jorgensen was the star of the performance.
Concert staples, both the Rachmaninoff and the Tchaikovsky can sound as if they are on autopilot. That was never the case Thursday. The Rachmaninoff soloist was New England Conservatory and Boston Conservatory faculty member Ya-Fei Chuang, and her performance would surely have made the composer proud. Her touch was firm, and so was her sense of rhythm, but she played with delicacy and color. In Variation No. 7, she turned the “Dies irae” into a tolling bell, and then she flooded No. 11 with starlight to mark what amounts to the beginning of the piece’s slow movement. She was butterfly light and beautiful in the flitting pyrotechnics of No. 15, spontaneous in the big No. 18. The orchestra didn’t always match her nuance, but the energy of their partnership was welcome.
Zander’s “Pathétique” — the original Russian version of the title means “passionate” rather than “pathetic” — was not very different from the previous one he did with the BPO, in 2008. Hewing closely to Tchaikovsky’s tempo markings, the first movement was alert and fresh; there was no hysteria, no breast-beating. The romantic second theme, buoyed by characterful winds, soared; when it returned, after the big eruption and the intimations of death, there was just a tinge of melancholy. The 5/4 “waltz” was relaxed and gracious, though the “dolcezza” middle section could have provided more contrast. The third-movement march, with its sly hint of an Offenbachian cancan, was all the more powerful for Zander’s steady tempo; the finale was all the more noble for its refusal to wallow in self-pity. No mush, no gush, just the symphony as the composer wrote it.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Thursday. (Repeats at Jordan Hall on Saturday, Sanders Theatre on Sunday.) 617-236-0999, www.bostonphil.org