There were many children in attendance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first Saturday evening concert of 2018. The performance featured two key elements that could have been of special interest to them — or their parents. The soloist was the deft 25-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, one of the composer’s most personable works. And the second half was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Those quintessential four notes and what follows are pretty much synonymous with the word “symphony” in the public imagination. If you need further proof of that, just look at the name above the Symphony Hall stage.
French conductor François-Xavier Roth has become a perennial Symphony Hall guest following his surprise debut in 2014, stepping in after another conductor had to cancel. When his name appears in the program, one can expect music from all over the European map and timeline, probably including a symphony by Beethoven (check), something by Stravinsky (next week), and the orchestra playing a piece for the first time (check). In this concert, that new piece was the tuneful and dramatic but ultimately unmemorable overture to “Les Amazones, ou la Fondation de Thèbes” by French composer Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, a contemporary of Beethoven.
Roth seated the violin sections on either side of the podium, making for a zesty, well-proportioned sound that fit the music of Mozart and Beethoven. (Maestro Nelsons, take note.) In the Mozart concerto, his conducting was spare but not austere, and the orchestra followed suit. Grosvenor’s piano entered as a spring bubbling up from the ground, cool and clear. So much of that concerto is built around the scale, and the pianist’s phrases flowed together with sleek, sparkling ease. He hunched in a shell over the keyboard, in his own world but never cut off from the outside.
In the second movement, with its sweetly wavering triplet pulse, he played like a natural extension of the orchestra, the broken chords in his left hand sometimes felting into the sonic fabric. The third movement rondo was technically spectacular but sounded stiffer, more removed. As an encore, he offered an etude by Moritz Moszkowski replete with crystalline trills.
The beginning of Beethoven’s symphony felt like a starting gun firing, with Roth all but eliminating the pause that ends the distinctive four-note motif before leading the orchestra at a blistering pace through the rest of the score. The second movement traded off moments of aggression and clemence. At the loudest junctures Roth gestured wildly, his fingers twitching as if electrocuted. Four double bassists dug into the driving melodic passages of the third movement with sublime vigor, and the final movement whirled out of the previous as a fiery pillar of sound. Solo passages for the winds were striking, Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo flecking the finale with silvery threads. If any of those children in the audience were Symphony Hall first-timers, they got an initiation to remember.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Saturday (repeats Tuesday). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë 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.