The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-18 season began with a bang Friday night, as music director Andris Nelsons and the orchestra lit up Symphony Hall with orchestral and vocal works by Lawrence-born Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial will be further commemorated this season and at Tanglewood next summer. The selections were delightfully eclectic, touring many landscapes in Bernstein’s rich compositional world.
The brass blazed with such vigor that the balcony floor vibrated as they brought in the “Divertimento for Orchestra,” a whimsically dramatic collection of short movements dedicated to the BSO in celebration of its own centennial. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and acting principal cellist Sato Knudsen unfurled songful solos in the second movement, a waltz in 7/8 time. Further sections included a bemused mazurka, a lightfooted “Turkey Trot,” and a languid blues.
The ebullient buoyancy of the “Divertimento” faded into a heart-pricking elegy with “Halil,” a memorial for a young Israeli flutist who was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe, one of the brightest treasures in the BSO’s ranks, took the front of the stage to play the featured solo. Her line zipped through agitated sections and wandered through calm ones, both her tone and demeanor meltwater-cool and controlled without tension. At the rear of the stage, Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo and Elizabeth Ostling’s alto flute rang softly, entwining and facing off with Rowe’s line, and the string section plunged into enveloping sighs after Rowe’s terrifying cadenza, which was pierced by gunshot drums.
Just as remarkable was the firecracker energy of rising-star soprano Julia Bullock, making her BSO debut. Her expressive stage presence and sparkling, pellucid voice were spellbinding, whether in the defiant “A Julia de Burgos” from the song cycle “Songfest,” the mouth-music of “Piccolo serenata,” the delicious Broadway schmaltz of “A Little Bit in Love” from “Wonderful Town,” or the plaintive, shimmering “It Must Be So” from “Candide.” Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who also served as host, is retired from full-time performing, and her voice has noticeably thinned from her heyday. Still, she hammed her way through “I am Easily Assimilated” from “Candide,” joined by a boa-bedecked small group from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The final vocal piece, “Neverland” from Bernstein’s little-known “Peter Pan,” seemed selected less for its musical qualities than for its giving the two singers a chance to perform together, which was worthwhile in itself.
With that, we went swooning and snapping into the night with an electrifying rendition of the “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story.’” Even if Leonard Bernstein hadn’t loved life and music as much as we know he did, our whole-hearted hometown hero conductor made us believe it.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
At Symphony Hall, Friday nightZoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. 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.