The Boston Symphony Orchestra will spend the bulk of February on tour, stopping at Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai. With the exception of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, the pieces this week and next will be repeated abroad, a mix of American music (broadly speaking, since that rubric includes Dvořák’s Ninth), pieces associated with the orchestra – Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no. 2 and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra – plus Mozart and Beethoven concertos with Yefim Bronfman.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Winslow Townson

The other American representative – Samuel Barber’s 1955 rarity, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance – opened Friday afternoon’s program. In 1946, Barber wrote a ballet based on the Medea legend, commissioned for Martha Graham. Neither he nor Graham envisioned a literal representation of the myth. Instead it became the vehicle for a dramatization of two powerful emotions – jealousy and revenge – with the mythic characters eventually morphing into a contemporary man and woman. Premiered as Serpent Heart, it was retitled Cave of the Heart after a 1947 revision. That same year, Barber extracted a seven-part concert suite from the score, then, eight years later, reduced it to one movement focussing on Medea while expanding the size of the orchestra. Though he toys with dissonance and employs some Rite of Spring rhythms, the style is typical Barber. Andris Nelsons molded broad, sorrowful and tender phrases as Medea’s thoughts focused on her children. As they turned to her husband’s betrayal and her growing resolve, melody gave way to sharp, driving rhythms increasing in intensity but never achieving the fury her dance required. Maybe the dance will catch fire on tour, but at this point it’s something of an anti-climax.

The BSO was playing the Chamber Symphony for the first time. Nelsons, on the other hand, was returning to a piece on the program of his first professional appearance as a conductor at age 19. The symphony is a 1967 arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the String Quartet no. 8 in C minor composed in a fever of inspiration in Dresden in 1960. Whatever the catalyst, the string quartet is highly personal, its keystone Shostakovich’s musical monogram, D-E flat-C-B natural, and its five movements quoting no less than half a dozen of his previous works.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Winslow Townson

Barshai’s addition of double basses significantly darkens the hue of the quartet and adds weight to the dominant mournful and somber tone. Nelsons’ use of a large complement of strings heightened those qualities and further muted the quartet’s thornier aspects. The emotional punch however was not diminished. He exploited the play between light and dark for dramatic purposes with salient solo passages from Tamara Smirnova’s violin and Blaise Desjardins’ cello poignantly providing the light. A rueful undercurrent with a hint of remorse flowed throughout. The final note, a tense, dense strand of sound which seemed to detach itself from the ensemble and float above it, transfixed as it gradually and imperceptibly faded into silence.

Dvořák’s Ninth entered the BSO’s repertory two weeks after its world premiere in New York and set off a contentious war of words between the two cities’ leading critics. One hundred twenty-seven years later, it has become an old friend, but one who spoke in these troubled times with more than a whisper of nostalgia. Here too, Nelsons explored the contrast between light and dark, as well as the elegiac strain which marks the famous Largo most of all, but also lurks in the outer movements. Melodies from the first movement recur frequently in the following three. Each time, they returned shaded and voiced in a different way, like memories retrieved at different points in life. Tempi were spirited, the spacious, unearthly Largo excepted. With its deep, warm tone and smooth emission free from any hint of reediness, Robert Sheena’s English horn solo seemed like it was channeling the voice of Kathleen Ferrier. The closing bars hung in the air like a question mark.

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