During the first half of the season, the Boston Symphony is repeating the pieces given their world premieres at Tanglewood this summer. Not only does this provide the opportunity for a second hearing, it provides the added boon of the Symphony Hall acoustics. In the case of Elizabeth Ogonek’s Starling Variations, the repeat was revelatory. The La Mer-like flow, noticeable before, was even clearer as the flock of orchestral sections executed the intertwining, overlapping and contrasting murmurations of harmony, rhythm, shape and color. Textures were more clearly defined with Ogonek’s unusual combinations of instruments and tendency to have them play in an unaccustomed part of their range much more conspicuous. The humor of the murmuration with all the string sections chattering at each other pizzicato was a particular revelation in this respect. The orchestra obviously benefited from the repeat as well, playing with the ease of familiarity and with unbridled verve, reveling in this kaleidoscopic score’s hairpin turns.

Jennifer Koh and the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

The two compositions by Leonard Bernstein bridged the decade between the mid-50s and mid-60s. The Serenade is Bernstein’s musical evocation of one of history’s most famous dinner parties: the Agathon’s symposium as recounted by Plato. Bernstein embraces that theatrical aspect of the dinner, casting the Serenade as a mini-drama where the solo violin gives voice to six interlocutors and the disruptive intruder, Alcibiades, backed by a string orchestra and percussion. 

Jennifer Koh made an indelible BSO debut substituting for an indisposed Janine Jansen. Her vigorous attacks and high octane virtuosity were punctuated by a bobbing and diving Louise Brooks helmet of hot pink hair. She limned the various characters with color, clarity and spontaneity. Her portrayal of the motor-mouthed chatterbox, Eryximachus, provided the comic relief, not Aristophanes whose quiet account of the mythological story of Eros was captivating. The three-part song which is Agathon’s praise of Eros in all its manifestations was a lyrical highpoint along with Koh’s rapturous duet with principal cellist, Blaise Déjardin, in the closing movement.

Linus Schafer, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Aram Boghosian

When the Dean of Chichester Cathedral proposed a commission and mentioned that “many of us would be very delighted if there were a hint of West Side Story about the music,” he ended up with more than he bargained for. Not only were there direct quotes from the musical in Chichester Psalms, Bernstein also recycled material from an abandoned version of The Skin of Our Teeth. The score looks back to Candide, but also forward to Mass, especially in the first group of psalm settings. After an unabashedly joyous opening, chorus and orchestra attacked the drama and turbulence of the juxtaposition of Psalms 23 and 2. The tension between the serenity and transcendence of Linus Schafer-Goulthorpe’s boy soprano supported by the female voices and the aggressive, violent eruption of the male voices played out with intensity. Despite the return of the boy soprano and female voices, the violent undercurrent had to wait for the comfort and consolation of the final settings to dissipate with the chorus giving thanks for peace and harmony a cappella.

In this context, Shostakovich’s Third Symphony could have seemed even less significant and B-list than it is. Though a sincere celebration of the optimism imbuing the first decade of the USSR, its sentiments would soon sour thanks to Stalin’s increasing paranoia. Nelsons decided to make no apologies for the symphony and let it blare, blaze and bloviate as written, creating a sense of occasion which could well have approximated that of its first performances. No one may have left the Hall marching towards a brilliant, Socialist future, but the choral finale was still curiously uplifting. Yet, as Shostakovich himself could attest, no matter how patriotic and genuine the sentiment, there is always a potential tyrant poised to co-opt and exploit it.