This week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program follows a familiar sequence — curtain-raiser, concerto, large-scale work — but it can also be seen as a three-part study in music’s powers to define space: acoustical space in a hall, geographic space in a single life’s itinerary, and the space of wild nature as summoned in sound.
In the first category, Thursday’s program opened with Derek Bermel’s “Elixir .” Inspired by Gérard Grisey’s “Les espaces acoustiques,” this 2006 score embodies in a more concise and lyrical form a kindred fascination with timbre — that is, all those surface qualities of a sound that are independent of its pitch. “Elixir” begins with hushed murmurings in the percussion, but soon the rest of the orchestra enters with a gentle, cycling theme made of chords whose surface colors shift and dance, like light on water. A theremin silvers the melody from within, adding a touch that feels one-part ghost choir, one-part 1960s psychedelia.
Two distinct groups of woodwind players further enlarge the acoustic space with jagged comments lobbed in from margins of the stage, but the big-hearted song at its center spirals onward. Curiously, the directions in Bermel’s score appear to call for these antiphonal groups to be further separated from the main orchestra than they were on Thursday night, but Andris Nelsons nonetheless led a transfixing performance. “Elixir” is an unassumingly poetic work, one that opens the ear to a range of subtle acoustic possibilities.
Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 came next, and defined a very different kind of space — a liminal space, in geographic, political-aesthetic and autobiographical terms. As Harlow Robinson’s thoughtful program note reminds us, this piece is a product of Prokofiev’s fateful homeward journey in the early 1930s, the end of his extended sojourns in Western Europe and the United States. And the music, too, signals a parallel stylistic evolution, moving away from the spiky and complex textures of earlier works and toward what the composer was already calling a “new simplicity.”
The estimable Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos is back in town as this week’s soloist. On Thursday night, he dispatched Prokofiev’s opening movement with cool, unflashy virtuosity and then unspooled the slow movement’s gorgeous singing lines with sensitivity and grace. But it was the modicum of extra heat and intensity he brought to the rhythmically feisty finale that raised this performance up a few notches in excitement. It was as if Prokofiev, despite an apparent wish to put his avant-gardist days behind him, was nonetheless returning home to Russia with some unsewn “Scythian” oats in his suitcase — not to mention those Spanish castanets! Nelsons and the orchestra were with their soloist at every turn.
Strauss’s enormous “Alpine Symphony,” the last of his tone poems, concluded the evening’s program and reminded you of this composer’s unmatched ability to translate visual space into sonic event — that is, in this case, to summon the smallest details of a mountain landscape in sound. A hiker’s storybook journey is all here in nearly cinematic detail: night, sunrise, waterfalls, flowery meadows, rising fog, thunderstorms, a glorious summit, and more.
In truth, few will make the case that the “Alpine Symphony” is top-drawer Strauss. Among this piece’s many critics was Max Brod , the Czech writer and friend of Kafka, who scoffed at this score’s “unalloyed realism,” its absence of any personal perspective on the landscape. Strauss, Brod wrote, shows himself here to be the ultimate musical tourist, as it were, snapping a picture with his camera and heedlessly moving on.
But like it or not, that very quality was not an accident. The “Alpine Symphony” was in fact Strauss’s positivist rejoinder to musical worldviews he saw as overly drenched in tiresome metaphysics. What’s more, Brod’s claim must also be qualified by a few touching details in this vast score. In “On the Summit,” for instance, a gleamingly heroic brass chorale suddenly disappears to reveal a plaintive oboe solo. The line is hesitant, interrogative. Our alpine hiker — no longer a mere transcriber of the landscape — is suddenly overwhelmed by the terror of the sublime in the older Romantic sense, a soul dwarfed by the majesty of the cliffs.
On Thursday night, in one among many notable moments, BSO principal oboe John Ferrillo eloquently conveyed this in his lyrically halting solo. For his part, Nelsons clearly believes in this score, and seemed intent on wringing out every last drop of scenic mystery and grandeur. The orchestra, despite more than a few rough patches, played as if fully committed to his vision. And the closing nightscape was drawn with particular delicacy, though the music’s spell in the last few seconds was punctured by early applause.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Dec. 1 and 2)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.