The familiar seems strange these days as we make our way towards something approximating the life of before times. At Symphony Hall, everything looks the same, but on closer inspection is quite different. Yes, you’re right, there is a fresh coat of paint throughout, a new color scheme and accent lights for the stage walls, and the gilt frame of the proscenium glows uncommonly bright. Unseen, an improved ventilation system hums away efficiently filtering and circulating the air. A vax card/test result check now joins the bag check for ticket holders. And required masking provides the opportunity to make a fashion statement. 568 days have passed since the BSO last played here and they are nowhere in sight. The stage is empty and silent until the doors on the right and left open and the orchestra files in to a thunderous standing ovation.

Andris Nelsons
© Aram Boghosian

Greeted in similar fashion, Andris Nelsons turned to lead a solemn, sacramental Consecration of the House notable for it rich string sonorities, moderate tempi and outstanding ensemble work from the woodwinds. The first brass fanfare raised goosebumps but there were times when they and the timpani smudged the orchestral balance. Chalk it up to exuberance born of a sense of occasion. This was the first piece the BSO played in its inaugural, 1881 season.

John Williams conducted the world premiere of his Violin Concerto no. 2 in July at Tanglewood. Written for and dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mutter, it exploits her mastery of color and rhythm (Williams specifically mentions her “flair for an infectious rhythmic swagger” in his program note as an inspiration.) in an eventful four movements of kaleidoscopic incidents lasting approximately 37 minutes. Williams’ film scores fly on their melodies; his concert pieces tend to be rhythmically driven. This concerto is no exception. Aside from a few rhapsodic passages, the violin approximates the cadence of speech in a variety of voices expressed with rhythmic variety and rising from a spectrum of moods – by turns angry, hopeful, insistent, sassy, contemplative, annoyed, bawdy, argumentative.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, John Williams and the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

The orchestra rarely answers and most often in chamber groupings, one of the most ear-catching a cadenza in the third movement involving violin, harp and timpani. For the most part, the violin is alone. Only Jessica Zhou’s harp really listens and interjects, in dialogue with the violin from a seat to the right of the podium, usually with a calming effect. In a conclusion reminiscent of Berg’s concerto, Williams has Mutter spin an iridescent filament of sound, which didn’t so much fade as become one with the air around it. An instrumental setting of Williams’ love theme from 1973’s Robert Altman film, The Long Goodbye, served as an encore.

So what does it all mean? Difficult to say after a first hearing and when the improvisatory vein in the writing sometimes lends a discursive quality (in the first movement in particular). Williams says it’s about Mutter and the violin, that any meaning is “in the ear of the beholder”. It would be easy to read it as a response not only to the pandemic but the divisiveness of the previous administration and its demagogic cacophony, but this pair of ears picked up hints of something more. Only repeated listening will prove them right.

An exuberant audience back in Symphony Hall
© Aram Boghosian

Bartók frequently came to mind. Concluding the program with his equally kaleidoscopic Concerto for Orchestra reinforced that impression. Nelsons led with care and precision and the the sections responded with all they had. Some of the wildness in the first movement was subdued and an undercurrent of nostalgia and angst was never far from the surface, but the overall autumnal hues were brightened by the lively interplay of wind pairings in the second movement, and the raucous irreverence of the fourth. The third movement stood out in this reading, a nocturnal world of moonlight and mystery whose dreamy serenity is nearly overwhelmed by suffering. The giddy finale closed the concerto with a burst of light and vivacity.

Williams, new President and CEO Gail Samuel, and Nelsons offered words of welcome and reflections between the pieces, but the overall mood of the evening is best summed up by the title on the program, “Reuniting in Concert”.