The stars aligned for the Boston Symphony’s season-opener with the Autumnal Equinox occurring scant hours before the concert and a New Moon arriving on the horizon two days previous. An even more auspicious coincidence, though, for a program kicking off the orchestra’s year-long celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, was the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which initiates a ten-day period in which Jews take stock and prepare themselves to write a new and better chapter – a “good inscription” – for the coming year. During this week of new beginnings, the BSO honored a favorite son, associated with the orchestra for nearly half of its first hundred years, who, at his best, epitomized the spirit of renewal and rededication in both his art and life.

Leonard Bernstein conducting at Tanglewood in 1981 © Walter H. Scott
Leonard Bernstein conducting at Tanglewood in 1981
© Walter H. Scott

A gala evening, the accent was on the festive and witty Bernstein. Andris Nelsons and the orchestra began with a joyful and jocular performance of the centennial commission, Divertimento for Orchestra. Planned as a compact, brassy fanfare of “Sennets and Tuckets”, it grew into a colorful, exuberant eight-part diversion based on dances warped and caricatured in the funhouse mirror of Bernstein’s imagination: a whimsical waltz for strings in the odd time of 7/8 (Johann Strauss meets Igor Stravinsky?), a mournful mazurka for harp and woodwinds which sounds more Middle Eastern than Middle European, a cubist samba propelled by jagged rhythms and a battery of percussion from Brazil into Rite of Spring territory, and a strutting turkey trot animated by a clucking woodblock and marimba, and an Ivesian contrast of time signatures. Bernstein made sure that each section of the orchestra had its moment to shine, then brought them all together, after a brief wallow in some low-down blues and the mists of “Sphinxes”, for the eighth and final part, “In Memoriam; March: ‘The BSO Forever’, “a rollicking yaw whose skewed rhythms and blowsy brass suggest everyone just might have had a few too many celebratory drinks and which he concludes with a John Philip Sousa flourish: the piccolos and brass on their feet for the final measures.

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO season opener © Michael Blanchard
Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO season opener
© Michael Blanchard

The introspective, and elegiac Halil (“flute” in Hebrew) for solo flute honors a promising Israeli flautist, Yadin Tenenbaum who, aged 19, was killed in action and decorated for heroism while serving during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Bernstein never met him but dedicated his nocturne “To the Spirit of Yadin and to his Fallen Brothers”. Halil is a muted, crepuscular series of visions, lamentations, dreams and night terrors given voice through the lines of the soloist. Principal flute Elizabeth Rowe was the consummate actress spinning cool, liquid mesmerizing skeins of tone from her long, gold instrument, entering dialogues with piccolo and alto flute, remonstrating with the orchestra in a continual battle between the tonal and atonal, and launching into a precipitous cadenza punctuated by gunshot raps on the snare drum. As the night drew to a close with wisps of the Adagio from Mahler’s Fifth in the air, the music died away on a note held piano by the flute, adding a hint of the conclusion to “Somewhere” from West Side Story into the earworm mix.

Frederica von Stade, Julia Bullock and Andris Nelsons © Michael Blanchard
Frederica von Stade, Julia Bullock and Andris Nelsons
© Michael Blanchard

Soprano Julia Bullock, with a mischievous twinkle in her voice matching the one in her eyes and an engaging stage presence, sang a short set of three distinctly different songs eliciting three distinctly different moods: “A Julia de Burgos” from Songfest where, in a cheeky rebuke, the poetry puts the poet in her place; “Piccola serenata” a ditty in nonsense syllables, lasting about a minute and a half, and composed as an 85th-birthday present for Karl Böhm; and the winsome “A Little Bit In Love” from Wonderful Town, where Bullock shaded the glow of her voice with some sultry smoke. Host Frederica von Stade sang “I Am Easily Assimilated” with diminished resources, flamboyantly vamping members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in white dinner jackets and array of glittering gowns and boas. Ms Bullock followed, with a rueful take on the title character’s meditation, “It Must Be So,” from Candide, then joined with von Stade for a moving “Neverland” from the 1950 Peter Pan, long overshadowed by the later Mary Martin vehicle.

An often overlooked aspect of Bernstein’s art this program highlighted is how much dance informs his music. Whether it was on Broadway, where “that Prokofiev stuff” as director George Abbot dubbed it, always advanced the narrative, in his three ballets (obviously), or in purely orchestral works, dance rhythms proliferated. So it was only fitting that the evening closed with a rhythmically sharp, clamorous, brawling, and rhapsodic interpretation of Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” which rocked the old hall to its floorboards.