Despite Mother Nature showing us her sunnier face lately, midsummer remains a distant dream in New England this time of year. Not in Symphony Hall Friday afternoon though, when Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra swaddled a packed house in a crepuscular, protean sound world of mists and sprites and braying buffoons conjured through three pieces inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.This week’s concert was the first of three marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It was also dedicated to the memory of Kurt Masur, whose son is a BSO assistant conductor and helped prepare the program.

Andris Nelsons and actors with the Boston SO © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons and actors with the Boston SO
© Winslow Townson

While indirectly inspired by Shakespeare through Christoph Martin Wieland’s epic poem, Oberon, Weber’s final opera straddles a similar world of airborne spirits and earthbound mortals. Nelsons and the orchestra adroitly balanced and contrasted the two worlds in a very Germanic reading, maintaining a steady but flexible and imperceptibly incremental rhythmic pulse which brought the overture to an exultant conclusion.

Henze’s Eighth Symphony, a BSO commission premiered in 1993, is a musical gloss on three scenes: Oberon’s charge to Puck to find the enchanted flower, Titania’s attempted seduction of the assified Bottom, and the restoration of amity and order expressed in Puck’s envoi. Puck promises to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. Henze gets him back in six, but six minutes of some of the densest, most wildly allusive, lavish music he ever wrote. Marked Allegro moderato, this thickly orchestrated scene demands much from musicians and conductor for the score to divulge the wealth of detail within the wall of sound. There was energy and impetus to spare in Nelsons’ reading but not the scope necessary to achieve the balance and transparency required.

The final movements found him on surer ground. The second is almost a love duet, almost because neither lover is ever on the same page musically or instrumentally. That contrast was sharply delineated by the BSO strings, standing for Titania, while Bottom brayed in the rambunctious interventions of the brass, most notably the trombones. Going from strength to strength, the closing Adagio wove a spell of calm and serenity – the strings, lambent and translucent, once again conspicuous in setting the mood – then petered out into silence.

Nelsons opted for a staged and costumed presentation of Mendelssohn's incidental music, fleshed out with generous excerpts from the play as adapted and directed by Bill Barclay, Director of Music at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. A bed, a desk which transformed into a sleeping alcove for Titania, and a high-backed chair and end table were arrayed from one end of the stage extension to the other. Motion graphics and projections of misty skyscapes and forest scenes unspooled across a screen suspended above the stage and covering the organ. Auditorium and stage were warmed by a sunset palette of dim yellow and orange.

Local acting stalwarts Karen MacDonald and Will Lyman (recognizable elsewhere as the voice of the “Most Interesting Man in the World” beer ads) played Titania and Oberon while Carson Elrod and 12-year-old Antonio Weissinger took on all the other roles. Even the confetti-tossing fairy soloists, Amanda Forsythe (making a very auspicious BSO debut) and Abigail Fischer, took part, delivering lines as Titania’s retinue.

Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe with Andris Nelsons and the Boston SO © Winslow Townson
Abigail Fischer and Amanda Forsythe with Andris Nelsons and the Boston SO
© Winslow Townson

Barclay’s overarching conceit sprang from Mendelssohn (Elrod) revisiting his 17-year-old composition and self (Weissinger) as he contemplates how to fulfill King Frederick’s commission for a full set of incidental music. Elroy is onstage before the orchestra tunes. He sits down to write his sister a letter about the commission and, as his pen scratches loudly away, the words appear on the screen. The Overture begins and he reviews the manuscript, contemporaneously projected behind him. Throughout, Weissinger sits alone on the bed playing a game of chess on a pivoting board. Oberon and Titania enter and the action of the play begins with the abduction of the changeling/young Mendelssohn accomplished in pantomime.

The liminal world of Shakespeare’s moonlit forest was brought brilliantly to light by orchestra, singers and actors and by the audience as well. During intermission, the ushers had circulated with baskets of battery-powered tea candles. As The Dance of the Clowns concluded, cast, soloists and chorus lit theirs. The audience followed suit as the fluid, shape-shifting dreamworld settled back into solid reality in the person of the young Mendelssohn and the words of Puck’s propitiatory peroration. Delivered with the slight lisp Mendelssohn outgrew, Weissinger’s address to the audience in a hall aglow with countless points of light was surprisingly moving.

A very Puck-ish looking boy remarked to his mother as everyone awoke in the cacophony and chaos of the street outside, “Mom, that was everything!” Yes, it was… and more.