With BSO and Gil Shaham, late Romantic passion at Symphony Hall

Violinist Gil Shaham (left) performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Hilary Scott
Violinist Gil Shaham (left) performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons’s manner of speaking is saturated with superlatives about the soul-feeding power of music, and the symphonies he chooses support his claims. One may look to film to see last week’s giant in action; in 2014’s Academy Award-winning “Birdman,” Michael Keaton’s washed-up character cocoons himself in the lush strains of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, which Nelsons conducted last week at Symphony Hall, and he believes himself potent and invincible, soaring above the Manhattan grid.

The hourlong symphony made up the second half of Friday afternoon’s concert. The performance was replete with brawny brass and layers of strings so full and voluminous you might think they’d break your fall. Nelsons’s bass-heavy orchestra seating, with the cellos on the outside to his right, lent more force to tumultuous moments, but the mid-range instruments were sometimes swallowed. There is subtlety somewhere in Rachmaninoff, but it wasn’t easy to find for the most part. One notable exception to that was William Hudgins’s gossamer third movement clarinet solo. Rarely does music swell with more unadulterated longing.

Didn’t hear enough Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in the last six months? There was more. Last week’s performance was the piece’s third appearance on a BSO program since April; Anne-Sophie Mutter performed at Symphony Hall and then repeated the work at Tanglewood. But in the hands of soloist Gil Shaham, it was barely the same piece. A vigorous and kinetic performer, he hustled and hopped all over his patch of stage. As he rested between some passages, a megawatt smile suddenly illuminated his entire being, as if he’d just realized again where he was and what he was doing.


His approach to the popular concerto had hints of old-time fiddling in the breadth and zest of his tone. His intonation was out of synch with the orchestra at points, and some moments of crucial build in the solo line became plateaus, but one couldn’t have asked for a more rip-roaring cadenza or thrilling finale.

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Arlene Sierra’s “Moler” was the program’s first piece and only piece by a woman in the BSO season. (More next season, please!) The music was not trying to be the most anything. Instead of passionately pulling the heartstrings, it offered an intriguing labyrinth of contrasting tonal colors and rhythms. Watching it unfold onstage was as fascinating and demanding as observing an open hive of bees at work, their every move dictated according to an arcane code.


At Symphony Hall, Friday

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.