“Always leave them wanting more.” P.T. Barnum may not have actually said this, but it’s a useful showbiz maxim nonetheless, one the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons seem to be embracing as they end their Symphony Hall season. It applied during last week’s Russian blowout, and it proved equally relevant Thursday as Nelsons continued to lean on his well-established strengths. The season’s final program sandwiches the world premiere of American composer Sebastian Currier’s “Aether” between the grand spectacles of Richard Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” showing the orchestra at its classic and modern bests.
Currier’s new work, a piece for violin and orchestra, is a commission by the ongoing alliance of the BSO and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra — Nelsons’s two main gigs. Expressive with notable Expressionist influences, “Aether” is dedicated to Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, who poured a vibrant spirit into her guest performance with the BSO. Her solo was introduced via a fascinating imitation game with the orchestra. Mimicking Robert Sheena’s English horn note for note, she played with a graceful, elegiac cadence; seconds later she followed the trombones’ brash attacks and muffled her sound when imitating a muted trumpet.
The piece is in four distinct movements, but on this initial listen, the borders between them were unclear, blurred as they were by softly roiling passages marked “ethereal.” The piece invited listeners to be present, rather than trying to dissect the form. Still, it was clear when the end was coming. The violin became the initiator, with solo orchestral instruments doing their best to imitate Skride. The final cadenza was a thing of raging beauty, a last shout before the violin was subducted into the rising aether, which then faded to a long silence. A shout of “Brava!” from the balcony burst the dam; the hall overflowed with applause; the composer came out for a bow. With any luck, this piece will be heard again.
It’s no secret that Nelsons loves Strauss, and with this concert he checked another tone poem off his list, recording it for future release on compact disc. Under his baton, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” was a cinematic thrill ride. The plot follows the adventures of a medieval German folk hero who thumbs his nose at the church and societal mores and gets executed — but he’s not really gone, the end of the piece suggests. The anarchic prankster represents an idea, which cannot be killed. Richard Sebring’s horn capered through said prankster’s virtuosic theme with bright-eyed glee, and Thomas Martin evoked Eulenspiegel’s raucous laughter with a crowing D clarinet.
The rendition of “Petrushka” that ended the concert was remarkable for its complete lack of filler. The final scene at the Shrovetide fair has been known to sag in the middle, but Nelsons built tension and anticipation through every sequence. It’s one thing for the lumbering bear dance to sound sinister, but it’s another for the high winds to evoke feelings of tense foreboding while mimicking ribbons fluttering in a breeze. Such treatment foreshadowed the imminent death of the titular sad clown puppet, while also vividly evoking the hot-blooded excitement of Carnival; eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you diet.
With this piece, the principal players got to show off their stuff one last time for the season. Both the vitriolic arpeggios of Petrushka’s theme and the mocking toy-trumpet tune in the Moor’s Room scene were given peerless treatment in the hands of Thomas Rolfs, who made it look like child’s play. (Should you find yourself next to a trumpeter who’s just played “Petrushka” at a bar, the drinks are on you.) Flutist Elizabeth Rowe’s elegant, dainty melodies were perfect for the haughty Ballerina. At the end of the concert, Nelsons invited retiring bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom to the podium for a solo bow. A good note to exit on.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, May 2. Repeats May 4. 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.