Encounter the word “bruxism” and you might think it has something to do with Bruxelles or Brexit or things that go bump in the night. Find out it’s the medical term for the involuntary grinding of one’s teeth, and you would be hard-pressed to imagine it as the inspiration for a spirited, polyrhythmic toe-tapper like Arlene Sierra’s Moler (“to grind” in Spanish). Sierra grinds her teeth in her sleep, a habit which became more marked as she stressed over a commission for the Seattle Symphony. As she investigated her malady, it became the stimulus for the piece she eventually wrote, premièred in 2012. Her reading revealed that the heart’s beats-per-minute increases with the onset of bruxism and that the grinding fluctuates, sometimes abruptly, according to the fluctuations of the five stages of sleep, particularly the REM phase, when we dream. These indicia provided Sierra the structural framework for her commission.

Interplay between Gil Shaham and Andris Nelsons © Hilary Scott
Interplay between Gil Shaham and Andris Nelsons
© Hilary Scott

A rapid syncopation, first in the percussion, opens the piece and pulses throughout at varying rates. The energy waxes and wanes in intensity sometimes precipitously as rhythmic and orchestral motifs “grind” against each other, the contrast intensified by sharp attacks in one section being answered with a soft, dreamy legato phrases in another, by high sounds juxtaposed to low, smooth timbres to rough and by the raw disparity between pitched and unpitched sounds. Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony in a colorful, dancing performance and Sierra herself came onstage to accept the well-deserved applause. Who knew that chronic tooth-grinding could be so infectious?

Infectious perfectly describes Gil Shaham’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. The sheer joy of making music imbued every bar. Last season, Anne-Sophie Mutter unveiled a complete and thought-provoking reworking of the same concerto, which she had been playing since age 14. Whether you agreed with her interpretation or not, she made the whole piece sound new. Shaham’s performance sounded equally fresh, but thanks more to its youthful energy, bantering interplay with the orchestra and its beguiling virtuosity. He threw himself body and soul into the concerto, smiling in open-mouthed wonder at the orchestra’s sound, nodding with approval toward various sections, constantly in motion between the concertmaster’s stand and the podium, often locking eyes with Nelsons. He rarely stood upright but cradled the violin against the side of his face, looking down, flexing his knees, and bending from the waist. There were even some discrete outbursts of flamenco to his footwork. At one point he came so close to Nelsons that the conductor involuntarily flinched. The lilting, light touch and virtuosity of the first movement garnered a prolonged standing ovation, with Shaham finally flashing two fingers to remind the audience there were two more movements remaining. After the pyrotechnics of the Allegro moderato, he spun out the Canzonetta in one long singing line of haunting silvery tone, finely calibrated pianissimos suggesting the sighs of a distant voice. Puckish humor buoyed the finale, as Shaham, playing with both abandon and control, raced with the orchestra to the finish. A nimble, amber-toned Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 3 provided the encore.

Rachmaninov’s genius as a composer manifests itself in a constant and seemingly effortless flow of earcatching melody. In his Symphony No. 2 in E minor melody is servant to the symphony’s uncertain, shifting moods beginning with the somber, seven-note “motto” rising from the gloom of the opening bars, the seed for the proliferation of colorful melodic themes to follow (along with Rachmaninov’s idée fixe, the Dies irae). Nelsons’ sense of proportion and structure tamed what can easily become a rainforest of lush lyricism so that the brooding dark clouds and stormy drama which weave through the first three movements remained conspicuous. The famous Adagio flowed in waves of longing, the clarinet pining above the strings, while the finale countered with an Allegro vivace sunburst of jubilant affirmation. So often cut in the past, the second was performed complete. Though it clocked in at over an hour, from the first note to the last, it felt as if time had stopped entirely.

*****