The Boston Symphony Orchestra played with light and shadow on Thursday night in a mostly Russian program, the penultimate in the 2016-17 Symphony Hall season. With the indomitable Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist, and music director Andris Nelsons on the podium, the spirit morphed from dazzling and lively to mournful and misty and back again.
Shostakovich’s splashy showpiece, “Festive Overture,” opened the concert with a bang and a flash. The extensive brass section, double the size of a typical orchestral arrangement, was so full and fiery that the giant string force was almost inaudible at points. Given the awesome synergy of the bass drum and timpani in the grand finale, I wouldn’t have been half surprised to look up and see fireworks launched in the middle of Symphony Hall.
Mutter has been playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for decades, and in those years she has made it her own. Gliding through her first phrases with plenty of glissando, her violin issued a throaty, soulful sound. Standing onstage in one of her signature strapless gowns, she was cool and calm, all energy channeled through her agile fingers and bow arm as she sailed through a sequence of double stops and arpeggios. Nelsons seemed to follow suit, his usual podium dance sizably toned down. She led the second movement as a humble pilgrim’s ballad, and the third as a high-octane whirling dance that sped up every time the main theme reappeared, her bow blurring on the strings.
Mutter’s second solo turn of the evening could not have been more different in color. Toru Takemitsu’s exquisite “Nostalghia — In Memory Of Andrei Tarkovskij” was composed of swells of strings that rolled slowly like clouds across a dusky sky, the texture always moving but never drastically changing. Takemitsu was a veteran film composer, and the piece is cinematic and atmospheric as befits its dedicatee, the celebrated Russian filmmaker. Mutter’s violin drew sparse, clean lines of sound, interspersed with the meaningful silences that Takemitsu so loved.
The transition into the weighty Largo first movement of Shostakovich’s underperformed Symphony No. 6 couldn’t have been more natural. The music intensified and ebbed repeatedly without ever speeding up. Pedal tone bassoons were set against drifting piccolo, with soft string arpeggios filling in the middle ground. Haunting flute passages came from Clint Foreman and Elizabeth Rowe, who consistently proves herself one of the BSO’s greatest treasures. Time moved amorphously, as it does in sleepless small hours or the throes of grief. The eerie sound of a harp’s bass strings evoked a grandfather clock chiming, and a horn solo illuminated the air like the sun’s first rays.
The other two brief movements belonged to the sardonic carnival so often visited in Shostakovich’s later works. Streamers of winds and blasting horns bedecked a lurching waltz. Nelsons grinned at the orchestra, baton and hands twitching in excitement, before setting into the deliberately paced Presto finale, which built to a rowdy burlesque stomp. In with a bang and out with a bang.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Music of Tchaikovsky, Takemitsu, and Shostakovich
At Symphony Hall, April 27 (repeats April 28-29, May 2). www.bso.orgZoë 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.