Symphonies and concertos can often be charted in waves. Either the piece begins with a bang (hello, Beethoven’s 5th!) or an emotional peak arrives early on. It pulls back, then it builds again, reaching toward the next climactic moment. Rinse and repeat. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, it seemed British conductor Andrew Davis and Italian pianist Alessio Bax had politely asked that paradigm to take the weekend off. On a program of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 2 and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5, plus Mozart’s well-loved Piano Concerto No. 24, maximum attention was given to the big picture.
Harbison’s Symphony No. 2, performed in honor of the composer’s recent 80th birthday, plays out in four movements, depicting dawn, daylight, dusk, and darkness. The piece doesn’t follow a narrative through those times of day, or represent specific things associated with them; instead, it treats each movement as a four-dimensional snapshot that captures the ineffable essence of its concept. The orchestra created a spacious sound, of which the edges could not be perceived. It would be easy for such a piece to feel scattered, but Davis maintained a clear and unhurried sense of direction. In the final and longest movement, the violins navigated a probing high passage with almost otherworldly concord.
Making his BSO debut, Bax gave the Mozart concerto a brisk, even-keeled treatment, and orchestra matched soloist in character. At first, the ensemble sounded a shade washed out, but after the piano entered, it was as if Bax had added color. The composer’s sole piano concerto to begin and end in a minor key can be a sparky Classical showpiece, but Bax’s performance was built on a foundation of understated grace, moderate dynamic shifts, and easy flow between statements. Many called for an encore, but the pianist gave none.
Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 was composed as World War II raged and its pastoral calm in contrast with his previous symphony’s severe modernism surprised many at its premiere. Though it uses many themes from the composer’s then-unfinished opera “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” the piece is non-programmatic.
Given its context, it’s hard not to ascribe a wish for peace to the symphony’s nakedly emotional trajectory, and conductor Adrian Boult wrote to the composer that the piece “shows . . . what we must work for when this madness is over.” (Vaughan Williams was loath to entertain questions about what his symphonies meant, reportedly saying, “It never occurs to people that a man might just want to write a piece of music.”)
Message or no, a sense of profound longing pervaded Thursday’s performance. The music was rigid at first, as if the beauty the score imagined could not be real, but soon, it gave itself over to the dream. The players were palpably attuned to each other, a feeling that ticked up a level in the third movement Romanza as English horn player Robert Sheena unspooled a winding melody, backlit by a string section that sounded like a single celestial instrument. At the movement’s end, it seemed everything that had transpired all evening had led up to that point, to concertmaster Tamara Smirnova’s violin and its plaintive song.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 10. Repeats Jan. 12. 888-266-1200, 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.