In many ways, the Friday subscription audience has been the collective memory of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Parents have brought their children as their parents did before them, going back generations. So, when they embrace a conductor with sustained, enthusiastic applause as they did with Jakub Hrůša, making his BSO debut, they are not only expressing their approval; they are saying you belong.

Jakub Hrůša © Pavel Hejný
Jakub Hrůša
© Pavel Hejný

They may have also thought Halloween had arrived early given the gruesome, gory panorama of revenge, slaughter, and satanic debauchery on display in works by Smetana, Mussorgsky, and Janáček. Along with Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2, these pieces call for a wide range of dynamics and orchestral colors, sharp rhythms, and an attention to balance, all of which Hrůša masterfully deployed. His podium manner is contained; his right hand carves and cuts clearly and precisely, his left cues and cajoles. Gestures expand with the music and become more muscular and kinetic as emphasis and tension build; climaxes often conclude with arms thrust high and wide above his head. His gestures are so clear and apt they make the score visible.

The afternoon bloodbath began with Smetana’s Šárka, the third and shortest of the six self-contained symphonic poems of Má vlast, based on an episode from the popular Bohemian folk tale, “The Maidens’ War,” which first appeared in print in a 12th-century anthology. Šárka is a fierce warrior made moreso by her lover’s betrayal. She swears vengeance on all men after the death of her comrade and queen, Libuše, and the restoration of the patriarchy, leading an army of women in rebellion and scheming to entrap the knight, Citrad, sent to quell it. From the boiling rage of the opening to the jaunty march in triplets announcing his army’s approach to the siren’s call of a solo clarinet which accompanies Šárka’s seduction to the swooning cellos soon seconded by the rest of the strings singing Citrad’s “warm and loving” response and the frenzied coda of the final slaughter, Hrůša and the orchestra gave a vivid, dramatic account of the symphonic poem’s eventful nine minutes.

Janáček’s Taras Bulba is a work in a similarly grim vein, inspired by a peculiarly bloodthirsty novel by Gogol. Written in 1915, revised in 1918, and not performed until 1921, it was conceived as a pan-Slav tribute to Russian fortitude in World War I. Each of its three movements depicts a death: the first, Andri, Bulba’s son, who has fallen for the daughter of of an enemy general, meets his father in battle, and is shot on the spot; the second, the capture and gruesome torture by the Poles of the other son, Ostap, and the third, Bulba’s revenge, capture, and immolation. As the flames lick at him, he prophesies a glorious future for Russia under a great, all-conquering Tsar. The ghastly goings on are painted in bold colors and in a style which anticipates later works such as the Sinfonietta and Glagolitic Mass. Brass and percussion excelled but never overwhelmed and Hrůša’s overall care for balance allowed the many facets of this graphic score to resonate in its first performances by the orchestra.

It is unfortunate Hrůša chose Rimsky’s reworking of Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain. The raw energy and passion he brought to the score roughed up the sheen of Rimsky’s orchestration in a way which made it sound much more like Mussorgsky than usual. So why not just program the original score? Missed opportunities aside, lurid, macabre, and savage, this was not your grandfather’s Night On Bald Mountain particularly if your only encounter with the piece has been Stokowski’s further de-fanged version in Disney’s Fantasia.

Amongst all these riches, Bartók’s challenging second violin concerto with Frank Peter Zimmermann emerged a triumph. Bartók offers the violinist no respite for the concerto’s 35-minute duration. Zimmerman was indefatigable, supple and unfailingly precise as he navigated the often rapid transitions in this mercurial score by turns lyrical, mocking, joyful and playful (at one point a gypsy fiddler pokes his head in). His Stradivarius sang throughout like a contralto with a high extension. Bartók relegates the orchestra to the role of a kibitzing bystander but, given the eye contact, smiles, and body language of Hrůša and Zimmerman, it was clear they and the orchestra were enjoying the interplay.

In the past, a guest conductorship has been the beginning of an enduring and fruitful relationship with the Boston Symphony. Bernard Haitink, for example, is now Lacroix Family Fund Conductor Emeritus and has a relationship with the orchestra going back 41 years. Let’s hope the Symphony Hall audience will be enjoying Jakub Hrůša’s singular musicianship 40 years hence.