When news broke of Jean Sibelius’ death in September 1957, the UN General Assembly was in session. Its President, Sir Lewis Munro of New Zealand, called for a moment of silence. Though he had composed practically nothing since the late twenties, Sibelius had remained influential and popular. Eight years later, conductor Fabien Sevitzky (Serge Koussevitzky’s nephew) commissioned a piece commemorating the centennial of Sibelius’ birth from Afro-American composer William Grant Still. Though there are hints of the Still who absorbed what he learned in the teens and twenties working with the likes of WC Handy, Eubie Blake and others at the first black-owned record label, the Threnody (In Memory of Jan Sibelius) sounds most like the Dvořák of the Ninth Symphony, “From the New World”. The Threnody opens with a loud and alarming brass fanfare followed by a melodic lament owing much to spirituals which begins to take on a march cadence until it transforms and blossoms into a full blown dirge with bells tolling and the orchestra pealing like an organ. Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra imbued this succinct composition with nobility and a sense of heartfelt loss.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Aram Boghosian

An even louder outburst initiated the next piece as timpani, tubas and trombones thrice thundered the fearsome name of Keikobad, the ever present but never seen King of the Spirit Realm who looms over Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten. That bombastic beginning belies what follows, a Symphonic Fantasy Strauss fashioned in 1947 focusing mostly on the human world of Barak, the dyer, and his wife. Two visions dominate the suite. The BSO glimmered seductively in the passage devoted to the Nurse’s tempting the Dyer’s Wife with a vision of the life of ease and luxury, hers if she only would sell her shadow to the Empress. The other vision she conjures – of the wife’s ideal lover – evoked a similar though more light-hearted and languid allure. The Act 3 duet, where Barak and his wife realize the strength of their love, is one of the opera’s emotional highlights. Strauss’ revision gives the baritone’s vocal line “Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege” to solo trombone who here played with a mix of tender devotion and yearning. The rhapsodic rapture of the transformation music grew into a radiant apotheosis to close. Though Strauss substantially reduced the forces from the 164 required in the opera house, his orchestration remains plush. Without careful calibration of dynamics, details blur and the music blusters. It is unfortunate, then, that an otherwise masterful performance was marred by some extremely loud passages, an uncharacteristic lapse from Nelsons who is usually so meticulous about balance.  

Andris Nelsons and Lisa Batiashvili
© Aram Boghosian

Lisa Batiashvili, on the other hand, signaled from the outset that her take on Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor would be marked by contrast and dynamic finesse. Rising with poise and calm above the troubled pulse of pianissimo strings, her first notes glistened with a subtle silvery sheen, then descended into a richer, deeper timbre. Exploiting the tonal range of her instrument in this fashion often transformed the violin part into a conversation between two voices, soprano and mezzo. Muscular and energetic, yet subtle and mercurial, this was a tour de force performance from an inexhaustible dynamo of invention which even infused the purely virtuosic passages with drama and emotion. Batiashvili threw her whole body into her part, swaying, dipping, even lunging like a fencer at times, but oddly in a way which didn’t distract. How she moved merely provided italics to the passage she was playing. Nelsons and the orchestra took their cues from her and answered or commented in kind. After all the turmoil and angst, Batiashvili chose to stay in Finland for her encore, a setting for orchestra and violin by Jarkko Riihimäki of the traditional Evening Song, Orvan Huokaus (An Orphan’s Sigh), a soothing, poignant lullaby which brought tears to some eyes and gasps of amazement from others as Batiashvili put the violin to sleep with an ever fainter whisper of sound.