The first performance of the Boston Symphony’s final program for 2016 fell on St Cecilia's Day. The patron saint of music must have been pleased to see the past, the present and the future join hands in a program anchored by two warhorses of the Romantic repertory: Mendelssohn's  overture, The Hebrides and Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, under the baton of a young conductor making his Symphony Hall debut, and sandwiching Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major K595, enlivened by the nimble artistry of Menahem Pressler, who turns 93 next week.

Moritz Gnann conducts the BSO © Hilary Scott
Moritz Gnann conducts the BSO
© Hilary Scott

Moritz Gnann joined the orchestra last fall for a two-year appointment as Assistant Conductor, after three years as Kapellmeister at the Deutsche Oper While serving on the Bayreuth staff, he also assisted Andris Nelsons with Lohengrin and Parsifal. Gnann is well over six feet tall. He stands erect, occasionally leaning in from the shoulders, conducting with energetic and compact gestures arms bent at the elbow. All the movement is in the forearms and wrists, both of which rarely rise above his shoulders. He began the program with The Hebrides, a tone poem in miniature capturing the composer’s mood and impressions as he steamed through turbulent seas to visit the cathedral-like Fingal’s Cave, whose Gaelic name translates as “The Melodious Cavern”. Whether Mendelssohn knew this or not, his overture is awash in cresting, churning swells of melody which ebb and flow and eventually build into a full-fledged storm. The voice of the cave interjects in echoing, distant-sounding fanfares. Calm is briefly restored before another squall kicks up. Gnann looked to the ever-changing sea to set the pulse which animated an approach steeped in mystery and majesty.

Menahem Pressler’s last trip to Boston a year ago took him not to Symphony Hall but Massachusetts General Hospital to repair an aortic aneurysm. Within six months he was performing again. Whatever frailties persist, they have not affected either his mind or his technique, both of which remain sharp. With the aid of a cane and a strapping member of the house staff, he slowly made his way to a special adjustable chair with an attachment for extra back support. The score was on the music rack, just in case, but he barely looked at it and turned the pages himself. His head bobbed to the music, a smile playing on his face, as he waited for the piano’s entrance. Then his hands and fingers took over and the twinkle in his eyes translated into sparkling trills and raindrop runs executed with a light touch in a performance of chamber music intimacy marked by precision, delicacy, grace, and humor.

Moritz Gnann and Menahem Pressler © Hilary Scott
Moritz Gnann and Menahem Pressler
© Hilary Scott

Gnann honored the concerto’s conversational quality and his elders by following Pressler’s lead. The full house stood to applaud, Pressler smiling and blowing kisses. After his second curtain call, he sat down to play Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor phrasing in long breaths, with a stunning control of dynamics, and as if to say, "You want trills? I’ll show you trills!"

The Boston Symphony performed Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony two weeks after its New York world première. Henry Krehbiel came up from Gotham; he was not impressed. What he saw as misconceived tempi (the Largo too fast and the other movements too slow) led him to remark, “It reminded one of the dinner at which everything was cold except the ice-cream.” Had Gnann been leading the orchestra instead of Emil Paur, there would have been no complaints about the bill of fare (except perhaps for the omission of the first movement’s repeat). He approached the symphony as if it were another première paying particular attention to balance, color and tempo. He let the music bloom, allowing it to sound as new as the New World seemed to Dvořák himself. Sometimes his enthusiasm and tendency to give the orchestra its head resulted in awkward shifts in tempo and a lack of cohesion, but these were brief lapses, quickly remedied. Two movements in particular sounded fresh: the Largo with its famous English horn solo, trivialized by too many film scores and too many tv advertisements, and the final Allegro con fuoco which burned with a bright flame and built gradually to a fiery climax, avoiding any bombast.

Fran Hoepfner at “The Awl” has noted how similar the opening of Dvořák’s final movement is to the theme from Jaws. The New World might seem like shark-infested waters these days in light of recent events. But a young conductor making a promising debut and an irrepressible pianist whose life has encompassed the bulk  of the 20th century with all its horrors remind us to take the long view and cherish constants, ever regenerating ever enduring.