Thomas Adès’s new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra made a statement even before the first notes of its world premiere sounded on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall. A formidable musical triple threat (composer, performer, conductor) who has been the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic partner since 2016, Adès has to his name a broad oeuvre of operas, chamber music, and orchestral pieces, which has led some to wonder: What can’t he do?
Spelling out exactly what a piece is on the tin is something he rarely does, however. Historically, he’s preferred tersely evocative titles (i.e. “Asyla,” “Polaris,” “In Seven Days”). For Adès himself, and in the wider landscape of new music on the whole, calling a concerto “Concerto” says something. It’s not trying to suggest any images or narratives, or hook would-be listeners; all it reveals from the outside is a meeting of two entities, orchestra and piano. With the composer on the podium for the world premiere, a BSO commission with a solo part written for Adès’s longtime friend, the versatile pianist Kirill Gerstein, it proved an auspicious meeting of giants.
The irrepressible solo part seems devised to show off Gerstein’s strengths and varied musical history. As a young teen, the Russia native came to the United States to study jazz piano at Berklee College of Music, just up the street from Symphony Hall, before delving further into classical piano studies in New York City. Adès’s own “In Seven Days,” which Gerstein has performed with Adès conducting, has been mentioned as a predecessor of sorts to the Concerto, but at times the busy, bustling new piece feels like a spiritual sequel to another Gerstein favorite: George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
The short main theme of the first movement — introduced by the piano, transposed, then echoed by the orchestra — lingers in the crevasses of the ear without being precisely hummable on first hearing. The ebbing and flowing meter, which often alternates between measures, lends the piece an organic thrum, while the piano is frequently instructed to play cantabile, as if singing. Gerstein rode the vast waves smoothly, without dialing up the Romanticish glow too much, while on the podium, Adès led with tight sweeps and sharp jabs.
This concerto claims a place in a centuries-long lineage of fast-slow-fast concertos in three movements. The second movement is slouching night music, almost a lullaby, beginning with a bluish chord sequence from the winds. Gerstein’s line tiptoed delicately to the high end of the keyboard, then struck spacious carrillonesque chords. The upward trajectory of the third movement calls for stunning agility and athleticism, and the pianist sprinted up the melodic equivalent of an infinite staircase, then slid down a banister of flat-palm clusters and cascading intervals. His hands flew toward each other, then apart, blurring until it all collapsed with a crack of the whip.
The evening began with a vigorous rendition of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz,” No. 1, a musical sketch based on an episode from “Faust.” Adès spurred on the orchestra’s wild dance through a village inn; in a moment of rest, Elizabeth Ostling’s flute had a nicely omniscient scolding quality, as if the bird it represented detected the devil’s presence nearby.
The program’s second half was taken up with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, a piece of great emotional weight that can sometimes lumber. Not so with Adès; he approached the symphony as one would a headlong fall, keeping tempos brisk through the long first movement. Many of the piece’s lighter moments, such as the squirrelly fairground tune in the midsection of the Scherzo, were reserved and touched by shadow. The second movement’s exquisite string melody didn’t give itself over to beauty, instead suggesting hesitance to embrace it. This take lent the whole symphony an unrelenting intensity, which reached its apex in the fierce finale. At the time WCRB broadcasts the symphony, I predict a related uptick in the number of classical music fanciers who receive speeding tickets.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, March 7. Repeats March 9 at Symphony Hall and March 20 at Carnegie Hall, New York; 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.