On Thursday evening, Symphony Hall was host to a musical celebration of youth. Under the baton of Russian-Ossetian conductor Tugan Sokhiev, who was making his BSO debut, the orchestra offered works by Britten, Chopin, and Mendelssohn, each written when its composer was in his early 20s. Two of these works were quite good, and one was extraordinary. That superlative was achieved with the help of another BSO newcomer, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki.
After bounding over the podium to take his seat on the bench, the 23-year-old pianist came out swinging in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor. Lisiecki has made his name as a Chopin specialist from a tender age, and his performance Thursday showed agile hands and an agile mind.
Chopin was a determined young gun when he wrote the concerto, with improvisation at the core of his compositional mind. The piece avoids some expected conventions of form, and sometimes feels a little droopy and indulgent, but not Thursday night. Lisiecki’s sound was delightfully spontaneous and unbounded, marked with round accents and impetuous flourishes that bubbled up from the keyboard. In the slow second movement, tiny touches of rubato aerated the songlike solo lines. Sometimes, Lisiecki slightly offset the right hand from the left; it was never so much that you’d think it sounded out of phase, but more evoked a solo singer taking his time floating above the orchestra.
In the blazing final movement, no two phrases had precisely the same character, as Lisiecki sped up a little here, blurred a phrase there. The orchestra’s predictably solid excellence stood in contrast to the freewheeling piano. Regardless of whether it was one’s first or 50th time hearing this concerto, this performance was one to remember.
The evening began with Britten’s “Simple Symphony” for string orchestra, which the composer wrote at age 20, based off material from his childhood piano works. Much of the thematic material is transparent, like a simple song a kid would hum, and the alliterative movement titles seemed to cue the orchestra to give it an air of parody. The “Boisterous Bouree” dragged a little bit but cracked open some nice hearty depth, and the “Playful Pizzicato” second movement sparked with live wires, The “Sentimental Sarabande” plunged into luscious tragedy-mask melodrama, but the finale’s dark timbre made it seem more furious than frolicsome till the more luminous conclusion.
After intermission, Sokhiev led the orchestra in a picturesque rendition of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, “Italian,” which was inspired by Mendelssohn’s travels through the country on his two-year-long “Grand Tour” of Europe. The first movement saw the orchestra in a carnival mood, with a solo clarinet weaving smoothly through the bustling tune. The second movement was muted but not too somber, the third elegant and cool. The vigorous finale danced through staccato wind melodies and zipping strings, spurred by a ceaseless pounding rhythm.
Sokhiev returns next week to conduct works by Brahms and Prokofiev. When Lisiecki will return to Symphony Hall is anyone’s guess, but with any luck it’ll be soon.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Saturday and Tuesday. www.bso.orgZoë 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.