Matthias Pintscher’s un despertar, for cello and orchestra, the final of six commissioned or co-commissioned pieces scheduled by the Boston Symphony this season, received its world première this week under François-Xavier Roth. Conscious of the challenge for both orchestra and audience involved in a première performance, Roth bookended the new work with two very familiar pieces, Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major. He felt the overture’s brilliant colors, drive and swashbuckling flair to provide the perfect opener, a contrast to Pintscher’s subdued, lucid dream with its dark colors, muted dynamics and opalescent textures.

Alisa Weilerstein and François-Xavier Roth with the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Alisa Weilerstein and François-Xavier Roth with the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

As with his two previous visits, Roth formed a bowl of strings around the podium with the violins divided and the cellos arrayed directly in front of him. The outer line of chairs to his right were angled in so acutely that the string players’ backs were to the audience. The double basses shifted to the left behind the violins and the brass was pocketed in the far right corner of the stage. The winds occupied center-stage behind the cellos with the timpani by themselves at the center-back.This left  breathing space around the four sections – strings, winds, brass and percussion – allowing the music room to breathe as well, even when Pintscher’s larger orchestra with its panoply of percussion swarmed the stage. 

Conducting as usual without a baton, Roth summoned the appropriate swagger and bravado for Berlioz’s concert overture, his right hand dipping, scooping and sculpting the sound. An occasional feline leap punctuated the rhythmic verve. His seating for the orchestra facilitated clarity, notably when the theme from the Adagio returned to be flicked around amongst various instruments like a shuttlecock.

Despite taking his title from one of Octavio Paz’s poems, Pintscher’s  piece is not a literal setting or reaction to the text. Rather it is an impressionistic portrait of the elderly narrator’s early morning feelings and visions as he lingers in the free flow of the theta state, somewhere between sleeping and waking. His other inspiration was soloist and frequent collaborator Alisa Weilerstein’s ability to produce a lustrous, deep and dark singing tone in the lower range of her instrument. Her cello becomes the voice of the piece, by turns groggy, animated, cranky, contemplative, obstreperous and resigned. Weilerstein, throwing her entire body into her playing, shaded her timbre and expressively manipulated dynamics and inflection like an exceptional singing actor.

Pointillistic percussion, augmented with a variety of infrequently used instruments like the güiro, vibraslaps, crotales thunder sheet, bongos and marimba, quietly and succinctly set the dreamy mood. The piano, lid removed, augmented the section when the pianist abandoned the keyboard to pluck and strike the strings. The cello grudgingly roused itself with a low throaty grumble. Chimes tolled like a clock striking 4, then a chuffing sound, almost like a locomotive starting up, intruded. Muted trumpets suggested strains of music from a distant radio; the chuffing returned. After finally clearing its throat, the cello began its fragmented, untethered ruminations with each successive episode exploiting a different part of the instrument’s range. The flow of shifting harmonies and transparent layers of color created by the ever-changing combinations of instruments produced a trance-like soundscape reminiscent of Debussy for this lucid dream’s unpredictable course. Only one brief forte outburst disturbed before the cello gradually and peacefully slipped back to sleep on a tapering tendril of sound. An unwritten cellphone obbligato was provided by some negligent member of the audience in the quiet, closing bars. Distant and mimicking the ring tone of an old, rotary-dial phone, what could have been an interruption under other circumstances  ended up absorbed into un despertar’s liminal dreamworld and failed to break the spell cast by Weilerstein and the orchestra.

After performing the Third and the Fourth previously with the BSO, the Fifth might have seemed the most likely candidate this time. However Roth chose the Sixth, the composer’s emotional response to nature. Beethoven’s daydream unfolded in the golden light of a reverie quite different from the disjointed, often fraught visions of un despertar. Roth maintained a strolling pace with plenty of time to stop and smell the flowers. Inner voices never had to fight for attention since Roth respected Beethoven’s orchestration. Smaller forces and the orchestra’s seating allowed for clear interplay as well. The storm rolled in like an unwelcome, but not unexpected guest, and rolled out just as quickly. When the sun returned to dapple the scene, the closing bars stretched and sighed contentedly like someone dozing off after a particularly gratifying picnic. A muted interpretation perhaps, but definitely the only sign of Spring thus far for those of us enduring an unusually frigid March.