The year is now 2019, and it should not be novel to see a woman conductor and woman soloist standing together on the Symphony Hall stage. Yet it still is, and when conductor Shi-Yeon Sung and pianist Ingrid Fliter took their bows together at the end of the first half of Thursday’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, the moment had poignant significance, and it didn’t only come from the tremendous rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor that had just concluded.
The first half of Thursday’s concert featured pieces from Mendelssohn siblings Felix and Fanny, both composed in the early 1830s. The two were extremely close throughout their brief lives — Fanny, the elder, was a musical mentor to her brother, and he regularly sought her advice. The juxtaposition of the piano concerto with Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Overture in C illuminated the two’s similar musical sensibilities. Both pieces favor good-humored exuberance when quick, and tender songful phrases when slow, with plenty of gorgeous woodwind work.
Fliter brought explosive energy to the keyboard in the concerto, shooting up from the bench at the end of certain phrases. In the relaxed second movement, the violas, cellos, and basses unrolled a warm, enveloping melody with a nostalgic bent. Fliter dusted it with silvery figures, making for a gossamer halo effect, then led a joyous scamper through the high-flying finale. Throughout, Sung shaped the orchestra with subtle elan. As an encore, Fliter had Chopin’s Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat major, to which she carried over much of the concerto’s final breathless energy.
The Overture wasn’t as clean. This week’s concerts mark the first BSO performances of any of Fanny’s music; very few orchestral works survive. The lively piece had the slightly stiff feeling of a pair of shoes that need breaking in. But more important, it didn’t feel like a box being checked off, or as the siblings’ father put it, “an ornament” in comparison to her brother, whose musical aspirations were (and sometimes still are) perceived as more legitimate.
With these concerts, Sung returned to the BSO podium for the first time since her three-year tenure as the orchestra’s first-ever female assistant conductor, from 2007 to 2010. After intermission, she led a vibrant run through Dvorak’s fascinating Symphony No. 8. Mercurial but graceful, it offered a full cup.
Sung emphasized the theatrical turns of the score, directing with a confident sense of timing. A simple melody in the first moments caught the ear, then repeatedly came back with the full force of the orchestra behind it. A sighing lament morphed into a triumphal swell, only a gentle, cheery call from the woodwinds reminding that this was the same movement. The scherzo was given significant heft but stayed on balance, and a unified thread of woodwind instruments carried the middle trio section. The whimsically dramatic final movement offered delights including a nimble sortie from principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe, the four-strong horn section doing its best impression of a braying elephant, and a shimmery moment of calm before the floor dropped out for the breakneck finale.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday Jan. 3. Repeats Saturday Jan. 5. 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.