Till Eulenspiegel’s picaresque adventures first appeared in print in 1515. By that time, his legend was nearly two hundred years old. By Richard Strauss’ time, Till’s scatological exploits had been bowlderized through subsequent retellings, but their irreverent, carnivalesque energy remained. That energy galvanized Strauss’ 1895 tone poem as Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony opened their final program of the 2018-2019 season. Hollywood would have billed this as an all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. Their Till swaggered and strutted; jeered, mocked, and taunted with an irrepressible confidence not even the gallows could dampen. The horn’s first two phrases of the Till theme were distinctly articulated and unusually broad, an I-never-heard-that-before moment which put ears on alert for the unexpected. While setting a rhythmic pulse which made the performance seem much shorter than fifteen minutes, Nelson was still able to give each episode its proper weight and color and Strauss’ instrumental filigree a voice and a purpose, highlighting the virtuosity of the orchestra’s first chairs. As the once-upon-a-time theme which opens the tone poem returned to close it, the voice of Till erupted with a raucous belly laugh to remind us that his story never ends as long as it is told and, though he must die every time, he remains immortal.

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Petrushka, minus choreography, becomes something of a tone poem itself. Stravinsky paints its episodes as colorfully and ably instrumentally as Strauss and with a descriptive use of rhythm all his own. Nelsons chose Stravinsky’s 1947 revision of his 1911 score, which incorporated long-contemplated changes in orchestration, expanded the role of the piano, and corrected errors in the first printed edition. Precise rhythmic contrasts propelled the narrative and instrumental articulation, color and timbre animated the individual characters and incidents, with noteworthy contributions from solo piano, flute, tuba and bassoon. No performance of Petrushka, however, can succeed without the contribution of a tireless virtuoso trumpet. Thanks to principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs success was assured. Like Till, Petrushka has the last word, reappearing after his murder to taunt the Magician. The only magic necessary to reanimate him and his story is an audience.

The world premiere of Sebastian Currier’s Aether for violin and orchestra shifted attention from Till’s earthy antics to the cosmic. Until Einstein, “aether” was thought to pervade the universe, cradling the heavenly bodies. In ancient times, it was the name given to the rarefied air breathed by the gods themselves. This co-commission with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, written expressly for Baiba Skride, nestles a violin concerto on a featherbed of “ethereal” music, a ghostly effect produced primarily by soft, high string glissandos, wind players instructed to breathe through their instruments, and the piano scattering notes like stars. Though there are four movements, the ethereal music which constantly flows between and beneath them blurs the boundaries.

Baiba Skride, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

The violin begins as if learning to talk, imitating the English horn. Sometimes the mimicry is precise; sometimes it’s partial or goes off on an extended riff. Other individual instruments take over and the soloist gradually gains confidence expanding and elaborating the responses. Independence is short-lived as the aether envelops the movement. More confident and aggressive, though still fragmented, the violin peppers the second movement with bursts of rapid figures, chromatic runs, and staccato double-stopped chords. The orchestra strains to keep up in the continuing imitation game, with only the harp managing to form a partnership. The violin finds its singing voice in the cantabile third movement, but proves no match for the aether until it summons the power to cadenza it into submission. A dynamic, jazzy outburst triggers the intense energy of the final movement. An extended orchestral passage dominated by a skein of rhythms from the piano follows. The violin responds fiercely then fractures into a series of disjointed interventions. It reintroduces the imitation game, this time with roles reversed. The movement closes on a cadenza cross-fading into an evanescent filament of sound from the high strings as the violin floats up and becomes one with the aether.

Currier asks for a modest orchestra with two percussionists handling snare drums, bass drum, four types of cymbal, brake drum, vibraphone, tambourine, anvil, triangle, high wood block and glockenspiel. They and the piano, harp, and celesta contributed to the score’s glassy sheen and cosmic aura.The violin tries on many voices before coming into its own and Skride gave each a distinct identity. She mimicked not only the notes but the timbre of each instrument in her responses. Loving best describes her embrace of Currier’s score. Nelsons sustained a mesmerizing flow and expressively balanced the coexisting sound worlds.

He and Skribe will bring Aether to Leipzig in two weeks and then on tour. Don’t miss it.