Two similar oboe solos, two large orchestras used like chamber ensembles, and a wind machine: those were the threads tying together Andris Nelsons’ second-to-last program of the season as he led the Boston Symphony in Mozart’s Symphony no. 23 in D major, the American premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Partita, Five Reminiscences for Orchestra, and Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote.

Yo-Yo Ma, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Yo-Yo Ma, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Nelsons chose the Mozart for its oboe solo’s affinity with the solo Strauss wrote to represent Dulcinea in Don Quixote. It also had the added appeal of brevity, its brilliant ten minutes providing the perfect amuse-bouche for the more substantial fare to follow. Though called a symphony, the 17-year-old Mozart, only recently returned to Salzburg from his final Italian sojourn, wrote the piece in the style of an Italian overture (sinfonia): three movements, fast-slow-fast, played without pause. Nelsons increased the symphony’s gravity by augmenting the strings significantly and having them play with a full, rounded tone, yet the two outer movements remained nimble. Assistant Principal Oboe, Keisuke Wakao, spun his solo into a soulful aria.

Partita is one of the BSO-Gewandhaus co-commissions marking the beginning of their new collaboration. Nelsons already led its world première in Leipzig. Widmann, composer-in-residence for the Gewandhaus’ 275th season, calls it a “declaration of love” for the two composers most associated with the Leipzig orchestra, Bach and Mendelssohn, as well as a “study in instrumentation”. The Bach inspiration ranges from echoes of his works, to the choice of the dominant key of B minor, the use of the harpsichord and oboe d’amore, and the form of the partita itself. Traditionally a suite of dances, here it becomes the vehicle for five movements of fragmented and fleeting musical reminiscences, only three of which – the first, fourth, and fifth – bear the familiar titles of a Baroque partita. None of them are remotely danceable or even recognizable.

Each movement opens with a different woodwind playing solo, introducing themes which will recur and contend with other and often anachronistic reminiscences, repeatedly surging then subsiding. The orchestra is treated for the most part as a chamber ensemble, with selected sections anchoring the individual movements, and only plays together in three of the five. In the first movement, Bach finds himself challenged by Wagner with interwoven hints of Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. Bach’s effort to prevail ends in utter exhaustion accentuated by a deflating effect from the wind machine. The English horn opens the second movement Andante quoting the doleful, cantabile melody from the Andante of Mendelssohn’s Clarinet Sonata in E flat major, a passage previously and independently arranged by Widmann for harp, celesta, and string orchestra and altered and expanded here. A solo violin picks up the tune which eventually slips from his hands leaving him to interject with slivers of natural harmonics. As masterfully played by Associate Concertmaster, Alexander Velinzon, these passages were bright shafts of sound rising in the air and initially difficult to locate thanks to his imperceptible bowing.

This and other aspects of the orchestration introduce the dreamy, crepuscular qualities of the fairy passages in Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Divertimento adds a note of levity with a jaunty, playful melody heckled by barnyard squawks from muted brass and constantly derailed by jazz rhythms and bursts and shards of percussion. Persistence culminates in a wild romp reminiscent of the saltarello which closes Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony. Counterpoint characterizes the slow and somber sarabande which unfolds without much incident. The closing chaconne gradually builds the repetition of a flinty, ascending decatonic scale into a celebratory crescendo culminating in the transformation of the entire orchestra into a carillon of pealing bells. Enthusiastic applause greeted the composer, who afterwards mingled and conversed with the intermission crowd, beaming and nursing a well-deserved beer.

Strauss originally conceived the Don Quixote solos for the principal cello and viola of the orchestra playing it. Though he sat out front on a raised platform, Yo-Yo Ma took his cue from Strauss’ intent and, in self-effacing manner, integrated his performance with that of the orchestra. Frequent eye contact with his Sancho, the antic, voluble viola of the BSO’s Steven Ansell, Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, and Nelsons himself maintained a conversational flow as he embodied the lunarian moods of the irascible, irrepressible Don. The undercurrent of sadness lapping Quixote’s idealism and star-crossed exploits was never far from the surface in Nelsons’ balanced and nuanced reading making Ma’s account of Quixote’s death all the more poignant. The orchestra exhausted all the theatrical possibilities of the many moods and voices of Strauss’ picturesque orchestration, with the billowing turbulence of the seventh variation a Dramamine-worthy standout.