Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena led the Boston Symphony Orchestra through three centuries of pieces that ducked or subverted contemporary conventions of form and organization. As the night went on, the size of the sound and number of people onstage increased in proportion to the vibrancy of the music itself.
Things started off with Haydn’s Symphony No. 44, “Trauer,” or “Mourning,” which played with expectations of symphonic form by placing the minuet and trio in the second movement and having all movements in either E minor or major. A burgeoning restlessness in the strings underlined the promising first movement, and Keisuke Wakao contributed a wonderfully three-dimensional oboe solo in the second movement’s trio. Haydn’s contrapuntal grid was clear though sometimes bottom-heavy, a problem which could have been alleviated if the violins had flanked the podium rather than the cellos being placed on the outside.
Next came Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, with soloist Julian Rachlin. “You need hours and hours of training, and drilling, and then you go out there like a racehorse,” Rachlin has said about playing concertos in an interview with New York’s 92nd Street Y. Indeed, in the Mendelssohn concerto, the soloist comes out of the gate with no room to think, immediately making the violin keen through its highest range; and with no breaks between movements, it truly can feel like a marathon.
Rachlin wore no blinders, readily engaging with Mena and the orchestra and displaying a hearty tone and gorgeous dynamic range that carried above the ensemble. He tore into the cadenza with relish, holding the audience rapt. One hoped that that streak would continue — however, in the second movement, in which the soloist plays simultaneous melody and accompaniment via double stops, everyone seemed to run out of gas. The third movement was uneven in tempo and energy, seeming to strive toward the same electricity that had surrounded the first movement, but only connecting with it near the end.
After intermission, everything ratcheted up a notch or seven with two pieces by the ceaselessly inventive Czech composer Leos Janacek. The suite from his opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” and his Sinfonietta seem to fit together according to some logic of a dream; it was never immediately clear how one idea followed from the last, but the pieces never lost anything for it, beautifully boisterous and bizarre as they were. The instruments taking melodic or rhythmic lead shifted in an eyeblink, making for a richly varied landscape. In the “Vixen” suite, a 2006 arrangement by Charles Mackerras, piquant sonorities illustrated the forest setting, its animal inhabitants, and its cycle of life and death with the same tenderness that touches Hayao Miyazaki’s films.
The Sinfonietta calls for an extravaganza of brass instruments (nine trumpets in C and three in F, two bass trumpets, two tenor and one bass tuba, four trombones, and four horns), an army that filled the rear of the stage. Mena seemed taken over by enthusiasm akin to a child in a toy store — so many horns, so little time! — as he grooved on the podium to the blazing fanfares and irregular, bounding rhythms inspired by Czech dance music. This was a dream in which I could have happily lingered.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 31. Repeats Feb. 2 and 5. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.