Batiashvili’s playing stands out in mixed, mostly American BSO program

February 8, 2019 at 12:30 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Lita Batiashvili performed Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Lisa Batiashvili performed Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

At his death in March 2018 at the age of 80, Olly Wilson stood as one of America’s most original musical voices.

Drawing upon his African-American heritage, the composer crafted music that combined pulsing rhythms with jazzy riffs. Yet his overall language was rooted in mid-twentieth-century modernism, and his use of thorny dissonances and textures created sonic canvases that are both eerie and beautiful.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the ensemble’s first ever performance of Wilson’s Lumina, bringing renewed attention to the work of this important yet neglected  musical figure.  

Heard as part of a mostly American program, Lumina is not the first of Wilson’s compositions to be heard in Symphony Hall. In 1981, the composer wrote his Sinfonia for the BSO’s centennial season. (Seiji Ozawa, who led its premiere, subsequently recorded it along with John Harbison’s Symphony No. 1.)

Completed the same year as the Sinfonia, Lumina is a play on color and light. Melodies are almost entirely abstracted, and for much of its thirteen minutes the music propels forward through rhythmic bursts and pulses that conjure a sense of the otherworldly.

In its opening bars, chattering woodwind figures get tangled in brass chords that glow like a distant star. Midway through there is a brief moment of repose, where an oboe melody peeks out of the thick harmonic fog with a beckoning melody. But the line is subsumed by dark passages in the strings, which evaporate into a breathy ending. With crisp gestures, Nelsons led an incisive performance that gave Wilson’s music stellar advocacy.

The bulk of Thursday’s program was dedicated to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and premiered by the BSO in 1946, the symphony has only been offered sparingly in Boston since that time. Little heard in the city in the 1950s and 1960s, it has crept back into BSO programming intermittently over the past four decades. And though the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, led by Stefan Asbury, performed it this past July in Tanglewood, the symphony has not been heard in Symphony Hall since Hugh Wolff led it in November of 1991.

Cast in the iconic populist style that became integral to Copland’s compositional voice during the Great Depression, the Third Symphony, for many, is a relic of postwar optimism. Well received at its premiere, the symphony and its sense of heroism seemed to lose relevance in the succeeding decade.

Still, Copland’s most famous symphony has the ability to stir the emotions as its bold passages, wide-open harmonies, and familiar themes—the last movement builds upon his Fanfare for the Common Man—reflect a warm national nostalgia.

Thursday night, Nelsons led the original 1946 version, which replaces Leonard Bernstein’s ten-measure cut in the finale. The Latvian conductor’s vision of this symphony resembles his approach to lush romantic repertoire. Tempos tended to be broad and the musical details were highlighted to Technicolor effect.

The themes of the opening movement unfolded in grand arcs with the brass supplying powerful statements when called upon. In the third movement, string and woodwind lines stretched out in long, serene melodies. The finale brought a satisfying sense of resolve.

But this was not a thoroughly convincing performance. With its interlocking phrases, the Scherzo is difficult for any orchestra, and several passages suffered from unfocused ensemble blend and tentative attacks Thursday night. Here too, Nelsons’ slow tempo robbed the music of much of its bite and intensity. The BSO is recording the Third Symphony for potential future release on the BSO Classics label. Hopefully the other performances this weekend will provide greater clarity and bite as well as more polished material for the project.

Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which featured soloist Lisa Batiashvili, provided the highlight of the evening.

Completed in 1916, this concerto is one of the most notable examples of the Polish composer’s sensuous style. His melodies soar over strange harmonies that ebb and flow in ecstatic motion.

The concerto is marked more for its sensitivity than for blazing technique, and Batiashvili conveyed all the work’s surging lyricism with both intimacy and exuberance.

The Georgian-born violinist played with a colorful tone that evolved smoothly from silvery to amber shades. Her technique was flawless. High notes were shaped with just enough vibrato to give her long, singing lines palpable momentum in the first movement. The quick passages of the second movement and the final cadenza unspooled into triple and quadruple stops, which Batiashvili played with passion and fierce concentration.

Throughout Nelsons wove a rapturous accompaniment. As the orchestral forces supporting the soloist built and released the music’s pent-up tension, this performance seemed as much a corporeal experience as a musical one.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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