scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Music review

A BSO program, from Russia with love

Guest conductor Juanjo Mena leads violinist Gidon Kremer and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday.Winslow Townson

The Boston Symphony Orchestra may not be performing a new work every week, but since the new year, every single concert has featured a composer’s first appearance on a BSO program. This week saw the BSO debut of the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, who worked most of his life in the Soviet Union after fleeing from the Nazi occupations of Poland and Belarus. Gidon Kremer joined the BSO and guest conductor Juanjo Mena to perform Weinberg’s 1959 Violin Concerto, which received its American premiere at Kremer’s hands only two years ago.

Kremer was in fine form for this piece, playing with energy and vigor that belied his upcoming 70th birthday. In four movements, with the soloist playing almost continually, the concerto weaved pockets of dissonance into a tonal background. In the second movement, Kremer’s violin moved in winding sighs, engaging in a duet with Tom Martin’s dusky clarinet. Though in a major key, the slow third movement was anything but optimistic, weighted down with expansive orchestral textures and chromatic turns in the solo. As an encore, Kremer gave a searing rendition of Weinberg’s Prelude No. 5, originally for cello, performed here in the soloist’s own transcription.


Weinberg’s violin concerto didn’t surpass the sublime affecting power of those of his close friend Shostakovich, with whom he has often been compared, but hopefully more ensembles and performers will dig deeper into Weinberg’s oeuvre; there are surely more treasures waiting to be unearthed.

The all-Russia program opened with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, “Classical.” This sprightly, sugary tribute to Mozart and Haydn does not feature a single melancholy moment. Though the piece was completed in the bloody revolutionary year of 1917, the composer’s life and work were largely untouched by those events. The jovial Mena danced side to side during the third movement Gavotte, which poked its tongue into its cheek briefly with an exaggerated bassoon honk. The fourth movement whizzed by in a twinkling gallop, bows blurring as they flew across strings.


Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 took up the concert’s second half, and excerpts from his florid, angst-suffused guide to the music for patron Nadezhda von Meck were printed in the program. The fervid “fate” motif, which began the symphony, issued in an ominous blaze from the brass section with exhilarating spirit if not pinpoint accuracy. The lighter movements held similar dramatic tension with the heavier; the palpitating third movement’s wired and anxious pizzicato jumped note to note as if it were scoring a high-speed cartoon chase.

The final movement unleashed a giddy carnival, with cymbals crashing, timpani pounding, and a Russian folk song reconfigured into a wild dance, so when the fate theme reared its head again, it felt harsh as a falling blade. It was bombast, but sincere bombast, and played with all the love imaginable.


At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Saturday and Tuesday). 888-266-1200,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at 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.