“Leipzig Week in Boston” salutes the imminent dawn of Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons’s tenure as Gewandhaus music director, a position he will hold in conjunction with his duties in Boston. Accordingly, this week’s BSO subscription program focuses on music with a Leipzig connection, celebrating the creative partnership and future collaborations between the two orchestras. This connection isn’t hard to find in the classical repertoire; Leipzig has been a famous music city for centuries.
Boston and Leipzig are longtime bastions of classical music. Not only does each boast a world-class orchestra, but as Christoph Wolff’s entertaining and informative program note explained, those orchestras have historically been “world leaders” in spreading music that is either entirely new or just new to its listeners. And as my colleague Jeremy Eichler noted in a recent column, the BSO had distinct links to Leipzig from its inception.
The format was not the usual orchestral three-course meal of short piece, concerto, and symphony; the metaphorical table groaned under the weight of five substantial selections, which showcased many facets of the ensemble. But as I exited, I felt sated rather than stuffed. Too bad this breadth of sound and style isn’t on offer more often.
Three pianos splayed out in front of the conductor’s podium for the first selection, Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for three keyboards, strings, and basso continuo. Bach worked in Leipzig from 1723 until his death; according to Wolff, the piece probably was premiered in Leipzig at one of Bach’s “collegium musicum” concerts, and in 1835 it was selected by the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s young music director, Felix Mendelssohn, to be the first work by Bach ever performed at the Gewandhaus.
The concerto moved with lighter, defter steps than Nelsons’s previous BSO forays into Bach’s work. With Kirill Gerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Thomas Adès at the keyboards, the lines were clean and the colors bright. The continuo strings sounded a little timid, especially when set against the magnetic virtuosity of Gerstein, who performed the piece’s most extroverted and challenging keyboard parts. His scales flashed like sunlight on water, with a current of violins rolling below.
The 19th century was represented by the work of Robert Schumann and Mendelssohn. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus found the soul of an exquisite “Nachtlied,” Schumann at his most introspective. (Germans romantics have such a way with sehnsucht, that untranslatable word for ineffable longing.) The blurriness of the diction maybe wasn’t intended, but it contributed to the hypnagogic atmosphere. Immediately afterward, “Neujahrslied” took a triumphant leap, but baritone David Kravitz’s slightly long-faced account of the solo verses didn’t match the chorus in spirit.
An expressive rendition of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, “Scottish,” ended the evening. It was bookended by two ardent songlike strains, the violins opening and all hands closing, and filled out with ecstatic clarinet solos from William Hudgins, a snappy scherzo, and a meaty march.
But the most memorable moment was the world premiere of Sean Shepherd’s “Express Abstractionism,” a BSO/GHO co-commissioned suite inspired by five visual artists. In his note for the piece, Shepherd writes that he finds it useful to view their art simply, and simple listening will serve this piece well.
In the first movement, calling on the work of Alexander Calder, one could hear the airiness and perspective shifts of a turning mobile, combined with the mechanical grind of its moving parts. Minuscule negative spaces aerated the burly second movement. The third’s swaths of sound evoked the geometrically busy images of Lee Krasner and Wassily Kandinsky as ribbonlike streams of scales danced with heavy percussion. The dark trombone hum conversing with the luminescence of high winds in the final movement was stunning. In a season with only six works by living composers spread across the Symphony Hall programs, it was a vital taste of the future.
For much of the 20th century the BSO was a musical pioneer, commissioning substantial works such as Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish.” But recent years at Symphony Hall have seen precious little newer music, and most of it has been short pieces. Also, the spread of composers who have been performed does not accurately reflect the landscape of composition today. In the past few seasons, all the composers featured at Symphony Hall have been men save one each year, and musicians and listeners are noticing. It’s 2018, and if the BSO wants to hang onto the right to call itself a “world leader” in this century, it’s high time for it to join the rest of us there.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall. Repeats Saturday. 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.