Balance and transparency may have been in short supply elsewhere Friday afternoon, but not in Symphony Hall where Juanjo Mena led the Boston Symphony in a bracing program of works by Prokofiev, Weinberg and Tchaikovsky.

The 26 year-old Prokofiev wrote the Symphony no. 1 in D major in part to confound his critics – to “tease the geese”, as he put it – who dismissed his work as brutal and cacophonous. A homage to Haydn, it scampered playfully in Mena's spacious, bright, transparent rendition, with humor, grace and tongue firmly in cheek and in well under fifteen minutes. A lilting Allegro gave way to a languid Larghetto. The gawky Gavotte lumbered in antithesis to its traditionally stately manner with an impish gravity while the Finale sparkled like a shower of distant stars. The winds excelled, never seeming to take a breath as they ran through the plethora of intricate and rapid passages assigned them.

Gidon Kremer, Juanjo Mena and the Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Gidon Kremer, Juanjo Mena and the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

“Prolific” doesn’t begin to describe the output of Mieczysław Weinberg. His works for the concert hall encompass 154 opus numbers, but he also wrote 65 film scores (including a Russian series of Winnie the Pooh cartoons) and incidental music for plays, the radio and the circus. Yet he was little known outside the Soviet Union. Despite brutal persecution at the hands of the Nazis and the Communists, he remained optimistic, believing, as he said, that “God is everywhere” and since he is, “there is still something to say”. Rather than resignation, he offered acceptance.

Weinberg owed much to his great friend and mentor Shostakovich, and Mahler and Bartók as well. He also enriched his vocabulary with Jewish and Polish folk songs, the music of the Yiddish theater he grew up in, and the various genres he mastered to earn a living. Yet he always remained uniquely himself. There are hints of all these influences in his 1959 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which begins with an insistent, menacing rhythmic motif repeated in a series of variations like the underscoring for a chase scene. Melodic inventiveness gives voice to the two middle movements, the sighs and laments of the Allegretto and the stoic, yearning lyricism of the Adagio, the most ear-ravishing passage in the score. The concluding Allegro risoluto march recapitulates the dominant rhythm of the first movement avoiding the strident hysteria Shostakovich brought to similar episodes, and ends softly with a plaintive, rueful coda for the violin

With Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer has been in the vanguard of bringing Weinberg’s orchestral music to light. He has also been an eloquent advocate for the Violin Concerto, giving the American première just two years ago and bringing it to Symphony Hall for the orchestra’s first performance of any piece by Weinberg. Clad in a voluminous, dark blue, silk tunic, Kremer swayed and leaned into the music playing with little respite, deftly, passionately and with caramel-hued tone. His mesmerizing command of dynamics transfixed and drew the listener more deeply into the drama of the concerto. It is easy to imagine how some passages could grate on the ears in lesser hands, but Kremer and Mena brought out the humanity and equanimity which underpins the concerto and much of Weinberg’s other work, particularly in the dialogue of the first moment and the hollow triumphalism of the last.

Kremer introduced his encore, Ukranian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s melancholy Serenade, with a wry nod to events unfolding elsewhere in the US: “This is a festive day, but I feel like playing something sad.” The audience laughed and applauded loudly.

Despite the somber program, Tchaikovsky outlined to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, that his Fourth Symphony is still the exuberant work of a composer finding his voice and revelling in it. From the threatening fanfare which opens the symphony through the agile pizzicato ostinato of the third movement, to the wild, exultant Allegro con fuoco which closes it, Mena brought loving attention to detail and balance to the grandiosity of Tchaikovsky’s boisterous score, creating a texture backed by deep string sonorities transparent enough to allow inner voices to be heard and the kaleidoscopic drama to unfold. If a human heart had beat at the same tempo as the symphony’s closing bars, CPR would have been necessary.

At the height of World War II, Serge Koussevitzky exhorted an audience in New York’s Town Hall, “let us sing the song of love for mankind and faith in the ageless ideals of independence and democracy. Let music become the symbol of the undying beauty of the spirit of man. Let us conquer the darkness with the burning light of art.” He would have been proud to hear his orchestra doing just that.