A Boston Symphony Orchestra program with no repertoire from Germany, Russia, or France? What will they think of next? I kid, mostly, but consider: the next time the weekly program won’t visit one of those standard-repertoire epicenters isn’t until March 2020. BSO music director Andris Nelsons knows his strengths and typically sticks to them — and with Leipzig Week in Boston approaching at the end of this month, there’s more Mahler and Strauss coming before long.
This week, with the dynamo conductor Dima Slobodeniouk making his Symphony Hall debut, the BSO combined Elgar’s pensive Cello Concerto with two paths-less-traveled in the form of Sibelius’s “Pohjola’s Daughter” and Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5. These aren’t totally obscure pieces, but the BSO last played them in 1980 and 1993 respectively, so they were likely new to many listeners.
The BSO has already played the Elgar concerto on many occasions this century, but only featuring two cellists, Lynn Harrell and Yo-Yo Ma, before this week’s performance with Truls Mork in the seat of honor. The Norwegian cellist’s performance Thursday night was one to remember. For Mork, a former choral singer, vocalism is indelibly integrated with his cello playing. To directly map his sound onto that of the human speaking or singing voice would be too simplistic, but listening to him intone the exposed declaration that begins the concerto and the slow-burning solo line over the orchestra, the similarities jumped out: the little pauses, the subtle shifts he inserted into the rhythms, the little sparks of sentimentality in his cello’s mostly dry timbre.
When the cellos — soloist and section — unified near the end of the concerto, they snapped together as if locked in place by some great magnet. The brass roared low behind them, and though the concerto (circa 1919) is ostensibly not a war piece, it was hard not to hear something of gunfire. For the yearning melody that lies atop the concerto’s final moments, Mork at first dug deep — then slowly pulled back the volume along with the orchestra with no decrease in intensity. The universe seemed to collapse toward the single point where bow met strings, and that heady feeling persisted through his encore, Casals’s “Song of the Birds.”
Mork wasn’t the only cellist in top form at Symphony Hall that night; BSO principal cellist Blaise Déjardin’s craggy treatment of the cello solo at the outset of “Pohjola’s Daughter” set the stage for the drama to come. Clearly energized even if not note-perfect (those unfamiliar-piece glitches?), orchestra and conductor fed off of each other.
That continued after intermission, when Slobodeniouk made a compelling case for Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5. Nielsen, maybe Denmark’s most famous composer, has not found much of an audience in the United States, and the last sitting BSO music director to conduct anything of his was Seiji Ozawa.
Modernist but not audibly nihilist, the symphony sounds friendly — maybe not so friendly to the violas, who had to sustain a trembling figure for a long time. Neo-Romantic melodies in the strings danced opposite pinwheeling exclamations in the woodwinds, and sharp ice replaced all the usual subtle sweetness of Elizabeth Rowe’s flute. When a lush slower section arrived, it was almost oversaturated; then followed a gradual descent into chaos spurred by Kyle Brightwell’s ferocious snare drum, and a spider-silk clarinet solo by William Hudgins wandered alone through the ruins.
A lesser conductor would easily get mired in this kitchen-sink of styles and sounds, but Slobodeniouk knew what to bring out and when to maximize both the parts and whole. At times, I heard hints of Ur-minimalism, at others the melody seemed to foretell John Williams’s main theme from “Star Wars,” and the top notes of a dense, dissonant fugue floated like an oil-slick rainbow on water. I hope I don’t have to wait another length of my lifetime to hear the BSO do that again live, but new this year, anyone who misses or wants to relive a BSO concert can probably hear it on demand for a month via WCRB. What a gift that is.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Oct. 10. Repeats Oct. 12. 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.