Dance – demonic, protean, rustic and refined – took center-stage at Symphony Hall Saturday night as Artistic Partner, Thomas Adès, led the Boston Symphony and pianist Kirill Gerstein in the world première of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and works by Liszt and Tchaikovsky. When contemporary composers use traditional forms, they most often intend to subvert or deconstruct them. Not so with Adès. He wholeheartedly embraces the structure and demands of the 18th- and 19th-century piano concerto and the virtuosic requirements from the soloist – not to mention aspects of the virtuosos themselves – which evolved out of it. Ravel, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Messiaen, even Gershwin, to name a few, tickle the ear, but the voice is clearly his with its characteristic, meticulously notated manipulation of flexible, dancing meters and rhythms, primarily dissonant harmonics, and sensitivity to the expressive value of timbre.

Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein with the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

The concerto is not only a dance with tradition, it’s a dance between Adès and his frequent collaborator and friend, Kirill Gerstein. The score is dotted with Easter eggs, referring to and calling on Gerstein’s skills as a jazz pianist, for example, and alluding to favorite pieces and previous collaborations with Adès himself. Not just new wine in an old bottle, though, thanks to the distinct body and bouquet of the Adès terroir, as the score illustrates: strings, three each of flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons with the third player in each group doubling piccolo and alto flute, bass clarinet, English horn and contrabassoon; four horns in F; two trumpets in C; three trombones; tuba; timpani and roto-tom. In addition, three percussionists attend to an array of gongs and cymbals, xylophone, marimba, wood block, castanets, tambourine, guero, tam tam, side drum, bass drum, large cowbell, and two or more whips.

An intense, often humorous twenty minutes in three movements (fast-slow-fast), the concerto invokes all the tropes of 19th-century pianism – glissandos, double octaves, cadenzas, cascading intervals, rapid runs and broad leaps – and exploits the full range of the instrument’s percussive and lyrical power. The first movement, marked Allegramente, flirts with sonata form, the piano taking the lead, introducing the short main theme which soon takes on the quality of a tipsy march. In contrast, the second theme uncoils in a gossamer arioso, all against a backdrop of swelling orchestral colors. The two contend and shift-shape, leading to a cadenza of Dionysian exuberance and difficulty based on the second subject. The melodic Andante gravemente opens darkly with low brass and winds. As the winds (outstanding here) dominate, the piano spins out a touching, jazzy/bluesy lullaby. The closing Allegro giojoso (NB Adès’ spelling) begins with what Adès calls a “three-chord call-to-arms” and winks at Mozart and concertos like No. 22 played earlier this season, interrupting the joyous, gallop to the end with a slow interlude. What follows is a roiling tumult of tumbling cascades from both piano and orchestra as they banter and bicker back and forth, not even agreeing at times on the key. The call-to-arms returns and everyone behaves. The piano is irrepressible, however, and, after a slow passage, takes off again, ignoring repeated iterations of the call until it tilts and plunges to the return of the initial tumbling cascade. The concerto ends with a coda and snap of the whip.

Thomas Adès conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Adès‘ podium manner was more angular and forceful than the choreographic gestures employed for the Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Gerstein was a marvel of clarity, muscularity, and touch. His commitment to and identification with the concerto and its many shifts in tone and mood was total. It was hard to believe he was only playing this difficult composition for the third time in public.

Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz no. 1 bloomed into an outburst of diabolical frenzy over which Adès cast the cold light of a full moon, the only warmth the nightingale’s love song. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony benefited from a limber, unfussy treatment and faster than usual tempi which lent an air of desperation to Tchaikovsky’s search for vicarious solace and relief from the pricks of fate in the happiness of others. With Adès, the irregular, oft-interrupted waltz of the first movement and the intoxicated rustic dance of the third accentuated the tenuous nature of the composer’s resolve. Colors abounded but were never overripe and the third movement’s pizzicato ostinato was reduced to a whisper, suggesting fleeting will-o’-the-wisps. Adès’ hectic pace in the final movement seemed to look forward to the exhaustion and resignation of Tchaikovsky’s final installments in his autobiographical trilogy.

The BSO is taking this program to Carnegie Hall later this month while Adès and Gerstein will bring the concerto to the Gewandhaus Orchestra in April. Go, if only for the concerto, a piece which should endure.