Social distancing made its debut at Symphony Hall, not in the audience where attendance was robust, but onstage, where conductor Hannu Lintu substituted a playful “Ebola Elbow” bump for the traditional handshake with the two associate concertmasters. A much more fruitful and promising debut followed: music from one of Iceland’s most prominent composers, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Metacosmos. Her guiding image for the music’s cosmic journey to a world beyond is the black hole, whose gravitational force transforms a chaos of elements into a unified whole and can hypothetically function like a wormhole as well – a pathway to another universe. 

Hannu Lintu
© Hilary Scott

Thorvaldsdottir begins with a low hum from cellos and double basses, and lightly stroked gongs and drums which swells to a rumble. More instruments add their voices to an intricate series of sound and color fragments continually bubbling up from this matrix. A cosmic wind gusts as the percussionists scratch and rub arabesques on drumheads and use a hand brush to scour the face of the gong while the woodwinds blow in bursts through their instruments. A snapped pizzicato from the lower strings signals an abrupt shift. Whirlpools form and eddies of sound ripple across the the orchestra as one section takes up material from another. A throbbing pulse from the tuba and bass drum replaces the rumble, the rhythms become sharper and clearer, the sound more percussive, until a climactic chord shatters the boundary to the world beyond, a realm of unearthly string harmonics and chanting voices. All gradually fall silent leaving Tamara Smirnova’s solo violin the lone voice, climbing then fading diminuendo to silence.

Lintu sat the violas on the outside for the entire program. Here, their higher profile tempered the cellos and clarified the hand-off of material from one set of instruments to another. Dramatic contrast defined the trajectory from the darkness and ominous tremors of the opening to the cosmic coolness of the fading violin, with Lintu and Smirnova holding the silence and postponing applause. 

Seong-Jin Cho and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Coolness of a keen and sardonic sort marked Seong-Jin Cho’s athletic pianism in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, written as much to advertise its student composer’s virtuosity as his in-your-face iconoclasm. Cho has a powerful and expressive left hand, tiptoeing in to answer the orchestra’s short introductory phrase then thundering with the resonance of a grand bell at the end of the movement. Here and in the third, his piano danced like a grinning skeleton, mocking the martial rhythms of the orchestra. Even the brief Scherzo was incisive and relentless with the orchestra providing the derisive snicker this time. Cho hunched over the keyboard, engaging his entire upper body in the louder, more energetic passages, slicing and slashing releases with his left hand. Indefatigable, he had to mop his brow – and the keyboard – several times. He was so pumped and pleased at the end, he momentarily ignored protocol, embracing Lintu then locking hands in a high five before returning for an encore prefigured in the menacing rhythms of the third movement: “Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Lintu returned us to the cosmic with pastoral repose and granitic grandeur in an awe-inspiring Second Symphony of Sibelius. The expansive majesty of his tempi and his layering of colors created a cumulative effect, though the second movement would have benefited from a tighter focus. Lintu and his baton parted company in the throes of the Vivacissimo but the inexorable swell to final, flaring glory never faltered.

More Lintu, please, and more Thorvaldsdottir!