Beginning with strings alone (Shaw), adding pairs of winds (Mozart), and concluding with all members-plus in a massive hall-shaking Strauss summitting, the Boston Symphony Orchestra also marked James Sommerville’s final performances at Symphony Hall as principal horn. The resounding opening horn notes in Mozart’s 40th announced a possible tribute. A cubistic BSO commission from Shaw and an on-again-off-again Mozart gave way to a thing of power, Strauss’s last big orchestral poem, bringing rounds of ovations to every section of the orchestra that included off-stage brass, a wind machine and a thunder sheet.
More and more listeners are becoming familiar with Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Caroline Shaw, who introduced her work. It is about her memory of being struck by a single chord she heard in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Violinist-composer-singer Shaw first revised her original 2009 Punctum for string quartet, later arranging it for string orchestra. Slow moving, self-conscious, and formalized, Punctum momentarily shifted tempo with several fine-drawn accelerandos. While mostly harmonically conceived, an extensive quote from one of Bach’s better-known chorales veered toward sustained melody in the 10-minute piece. The BSO strings took advantage of Shaw’s idiomatic writing to burnish further its already highly refined image, all under Nelsons’s dedicated guidance.
Not surprisingly, no real leap occurred going from the history-peering Shaw to the Mozart. In fact, in this context, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor dared more. The paired winds sparked lively declarations and dialogues, the duo of Sommerville-Sebring standing out from those among the deluge of performances by countless orchestras. Still clear in my memory is how those rarified Mozartian horn passages rang out with intense brightness. While the Allegro kept its momentum, the following Andante sputtered overall, its many moods overplayed. Its many lighter and darker passages argued rather than coalesced. Back on track, the Menuetto with Nelsons’s broad accents brought about a robust, yet stately dance, deftly contrasting a gentler Allegretto. After a promising opening of the symphony’s Allegro assai, much of this last movement lost its steam. Not so with the winds who remained fully engaged throughout.
Neither the Shaw nor the Mozart drew strong response from listeners.
There was hope there would be on-screen display text to enhance the Strauss as there had for Stravinsky’s Firebird concert version several years ago. Knowing—even anticipating—the whereabouts of the composer on his daylong 22-scene journey without such a map changes one’s approach to listening. One also wondered why there could not have been a few words in the brochure from Nelsons about what it is like conducting a work of extraordinary orchestral mastery and reach.
Once underway, it became an all An Alpine Symphony dating from 1915 appeared somehow current: the mountain journey could take place in a present-time America ever more conscious of nature and of “going green.” From the second balcony center, where the sight of a sea of instruments impressed this normally more earthbound listener, a near-infinite range of sound electrified. Swept away by scene after scene, by the changing light, the wondrous, the breathtaking, the sudden surprises, the acknowledgments from reverence to awe, from calm to terror, how many of those at Symphony Hall also left re-experiencing the dreams and thrills of their childhoods?
That such an enormous orchestra could keep active throughout its ranks for 50 non-stop minutes of precision and gusto would have been nothing short of incredible for any ensemble other than our BSO. And we needed no map needed to alert us to the much-anticipated scene nearing the end of the long hike; Thunderstorm shook the hall with a powerhouse of percussion.