When the Gewandhausorchester and Boston Symphony approached Betsy Jolas in the summer of 2018 with a commission, her thoughts turned to the two cities, Boston and Leipzig. She was quite familiar with the former but, though she had dreamt of visiting, had never been to the latter. As she gave her fantasy free rein, imagining what it would be like to explore the city, a “Bach playlist” formed in her mind, providing the soundtrack for her reverie. Leipzig became “Bachville” and she had the premise for her commission: an impressionistic evocation of the city through the music of its greatest musician. In September, Andris Nelsons led the Gewandhausorchester in the world premiere.

Mitsuko Uchida plays the Ravel Piano Concerto
© Winslow Townson

Letters from Bachville is not a ”name that tune” piece, but a mosaic of brief fragments which intersect at odd angles. A grand array of percussion, including a thunder sheet, lion’s roar and sizzle cymbals, provides the grout which fills the interstices, with a tolling of tubular bells a recurring motif. Very few fragments quote outright, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” being the most readily identifiable snippet. More often, Jolas teases or compresses the material, or simply changes pitch, plays with rhythm, or assigns the fragment to a different mix of instruments. Many – like a trumpet flourish here and a contrapuntal passage there – only allude to Bach stylistically. The relevance to Bach is sometimes so submerged, though, that the smiles and knowing glances exchanged by orchestra members are the only signs that something interesting is going on. Nevertheless, Jolas’ reverie allows each individual to compose the piece in their own way, whether they know Bach or not. Nelsons and the orchestra presented the various tesserae and their distinctive colors within the relaxed flow of a daydream, with loving attention to detail and a sensitivity to the humor which animates many of Jolas’ transformations. The 93-year old composer came down the aisle to shake Nelsons’ hand and acknowledge the audience’s approval.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida applied the same skills which make her Mozart performances outstanding to Ravel’s piano concerto. Lightness of touch and purity of tone added delicacy to a concerto more often known for its drive and high spirits. Those qualities were not lacking, but the tonal sparkle was unique. The first movement brought to mind a boisterous Manhattan streetscape in the Roaring 20s with the piano detaching itself from the bustle to duck into a blues bar. In the second, the unflagging waltz rhythm from Uchida’s left hand had the same dream-like, Mozartean quality as the melody flowing from her right. And who knew fingers could move so fast – and so precisely – in the final movement? Apparently not Dame Mitsuko herself who, at the finish, remained seated and clapped her right hand above her heart, looking astounded as she heaved a huge sigh.

Shostakovich scored films throughout his career. His Twelfth Symphony, with its technicolor scene-painting of episodes from the October Revolution, could easily serve as a soundtrack for Eisenstein’s silent October: Ten Days That Shook The World. Nelsons offered a vivid, loud, inexorable interpretation which didn’t apologize for the impersonal, Socialist realism boilerplate. “Raziiv” presented an oasis of quiet intimacy and the personal with the colors of the dominant woodwinds adding a tinge of melancholy. Unlike the last movement of the Fifth in which the pounding timpani are similarly prominent but dominate the closing measures, the Twelfth ends in fits and starts, then the momentum finally builds, but with timpani beating within the fabric of the orchestra. Nelsons leaves it to you to decide what that contrast means.