When an actor underplays a role, it can be a revelation, particularly if the role is one of the keystones of the repertory. Igor Levit decided to underplay the role of the soloist in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto in his Symphony Hall debut. It was as if he wanted to bring some of the intimacy of his lockdown Hauskonzerts to a concert hall staple. Whether it struck you as a revelation or a miscalculation, it definitely called for your attention.

Elim Chan and Igor levit
© Winslow Townson

As Michael Steinberg pointed out in the program notes, dolce and leggiero are the most frequent expressive markings in the score. Levit made them the foundation of his interpretation, using a much lighter touch than normal with notes briefly floating like glimmering bubbles of sound. Passages which usually thundered spoke more softly; others occasionally skirted the limits of audibility. The piano rarely dominated, mostly insinuated, inviting the listener to listen closely and reconsider a familiar piece in a new light. 

The piano’s answer to the solo horn set the tone suggesting the soloist was quietly thinking aloud. The cadenza was powerful, but not aggressively declamatory, as if to say, “Hold on a minute; please listen to what I have to say.” When the horn returned for the recapitulation, Levit couched his response in an aura of quiet wonder and mystery. As Brahms reduces his forces in the final two movements, he followed suit receding further into the textures of the orchestra and quietly trilling the dreamy Andante to sleep before slyly teasing the opening passage of the closing Allegretto and scampering off fleet as a frisky feline. Schubert’s Moment musical No. 3 in F minor provided a charming miniature for Levit’s encore.

Elim Chan conducted a taut, brisk, rhythmically acute rendition of the score in her BSO debut. A kinetic dynamo sparking the orchestra, her baton said it all carving phrases and accents close to her body and rarely higher than her head. Her left hand discretely cajoled and calmed, marked entrances, and emphasized attacks. At times, she turned to look directly at a section, further conveying what she wanted. The give-and-take was palpable and electric; the accompaniment responsive to Levit’s conception yet still robust. 

Elim Chan conducts the Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Her keen sense of a score’s architecture and alertness to the ebb and flow of tension paid dividends throughout the concert, most especially in taming the potential bombast of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony to create a cohesive dramatic and expressive arc – bold and balanced in the first movement, playful in the martial music of the second, devilish in the third with its Sorcerer’s Apprentice vibe and expertly driving the final movement to a thrilling build up of volume and tension leading to a cathartic release seldom achieved in the concert hall let alone in this symphony.

Unusual too was the order of the program with the concerto taking up the first half and the shortest piece – Brian Raphael Nabors’s Pulse – opening the second. Originally conceived for chamber orchestra, Nabors expanded his 2017 score for symphony orchestra two years later. His inspiration came from a contemplation of daily life and yielded a series of colorful and varied vignettes representing the rhythm of the universe and different aspects of life, from the bright tumult of a bustling metropolis to the shadowy calm of the wilderness with its animal sounds. Tying it all together is a constant, burbling pulse introduced with a snap right at the outset, now in the foreground, now receding to the background. Nabors couldn’t have wished for a better advocate. Chan gave each vignette its own colors and distinct rhythmic profile, yet they played out as variations on the universal rhythm. It was a crowded twelve minutes made more accessible by her care for balance. Still, episodes described by the composer were not always immediately recognizable. The wilderness (if that was what the episode truly was) sounded more like a rainforest, for example, thanks to the expressive use of percussion. Probably best to sit back and let the music wash over and guide you rather than the composer’s words.

Nabors joined Levit and Chan in being a Symphony Hall first. Here’s hoping we hear more from all three in coming seasons.