Tuesday at Symphony Hall offered the best of two worlds, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra took the audience into uncharted territory with a world premiere and enlivened familiar Brahms favorites with dynamic vitality.
Listening to Timo Andres’s “Everything Happens So Much” felt like finding an unhyped, unique corner of our online multiverse. The piece takes its title from a tweet by @Horse_ebooks, a Twitter account that made readers smile with pithy Dada-ish witticisms like “Is the dance floor calling? No.” Beginning in the piccolo, a germ of a melody wriggled down an arpeggio, going viral through different voices and variations as directed by Andris Nelsons’s flicking baton. The sonic textures and colors morphed, but maintained a tangible connection to the original idea. Against a gradually variegating backdrop of atmospheric strings, a lush melody flowered, and little pops of mallet percussion gleamed. Commissioned to complement the BSO’s current Brahms marathon, the piece will hopefully take on a life of its own.
In 1881 Brahms wrote to a friend that he had finished a “tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo.” Little is tiny about Brahms’s vast Piano Concerto No. 2. French pianist Hélène Grimaud played with grace and gravity, her phrases springing forth in long arcs. Only in the second movement scherzo (which has nothing wispy about it) did her approach seem at odds with the orchestra: Especially when the musicians brought fortissimo flash and fire, the piano sounded waterlogged and weighty in contrast. The third movement, however, was staggering. Time seemed to suspend, Grimaud’s soft notes spangling the sonic landscape like a night’s first stars. The extensive cello solo, played with sincere tenderness by Martha Babcock, resonated, especially elegiac. Jules Eskin, the orchestra’s principal cellist since 1964, had died earlier that day after a long battle with cancer.
Brahms’s symphonies have distinct seasons. The composer’s Symphony No. 2, in contrast to his first, was completed in one idyllic working summer in a lakeside resort town. Watching last Friday afternoon’s performance, one could almost see the composer happily at work; the music moved easily, with only a few flashes of ominously bright light in the form of the trombones and timpani. James Sommerville contributed a mellow horn solo to the dreamy second movement. A genteel, nimble woodwind chorus enlivened the third movement Allegretto, but quicker sections for the full orchestra felt weary. The energy returned in the finale, which ended with a noble burst of bold brass phrases unfurling one by one.
If the second symphony evoked a mostly carefree summer, Symphony No. 3 was high autumn. From afar on Tuesday, it was a vivid, unified tapestry; zoomed in, phrases varied as much as a single tree’s turning leaves, each distinct but unmistakably from the same seed. Nelsons wielded his baton like a magic wand as he danced on the podium, the embodiment of unrestrained delight in the music. Each harmonic turn felt like a new discovery. The high strings adorning the accents of the songlike third-movement theme materialized and faded like fog burning off.
The critic of the Boston Gazette unleashed invective on the BSO’s first performance of the symphony in 1884, writing that the music was “painfully dry, deliberate and ungenial ... free from all effect of seeming spontaneity.” What a pity he wasn’t around to see this performance and change his mind.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Nov. 15 (repeats Thursday. Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 replaces Symphony No. 3 on Friday and Saturday.)Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.