As Artur Maskats commenced work on a Boston Symphony Orchestra–Gewandhaus joint commission, inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, his friend and colleague Andrejs Žagars, died. With Andris Nelsons in the pit, Maskats as artistic director, and Žagars as general director, they had presided over the Latvian National Opera. What was originally intended to be an impressionistic evocation of Dickinson’s poetic universe deepened into a reflection on loss and “the source of Beauty and Eternal Life that we can only sense.” Though Maskats’ composition takes its themes and its title from the brief quatrain, “My river runs to thee,” the imagery from “Two butterflies went out at noon” colors the waltzing second episode.

Daniel Lozakovich, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Hilary Scott
Daniel Lozakovich, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

My river runs to thee begins in darkness and mystery with a barely perceptible rumble from bass drum and timpani, then a brief sprinkling of stars from the wind chimes and occasional tick-tock from the woodblocks. Mist rises from the strings and a mournful plaint from the clarinet, which is eventually taken up and elaborated by other sections, their intertwining strands forming an ever denser and agitated river of sound which swells to a bereaved fortissimo. A hint of a death march sounds from afar in the brass and wafts over to the percussion before the sighs of the wind machine begin to clear the air for the lighter, brighter waltz. The rumble returns, a brooding and steady beat in the lower strings rises from it, shifting shape and building up into something majestic before being cut off. The piece concludes with an echo of the opening cascade of wind chimes and punctuating woodblocks. The English horn replaces the clarinet, the solo violin interjects, textures thin with the wind machine and percussion becoming prominent as the mists dissipate and the peace of silence finally reigns.

Nelsons led with loving care and a sense of awe and mystery. The emotional impact of Barber’s Adagio for Strings came to mind in his handling of the first section. The highest praise a premiere can earn is it creates a desire to hear a composition again. That was definitely the case here.

Meditation on death and transcendence continued in the second half with the BSO’s first performance of a work by Galina Grigorjeva: On Leaving, a setting of five selections from the Orthodox prayers for the dead based on the traditional practices of Russian polyphony and its natural dissonances. The second prayer imploring the Virgin calls for solo tenor, recorder (subbed here by the flute), and triangle in addition to the chorus. Otherwise the prayers are sung by various complements of the unaccompanied chorus. A nimbus of warm glowing sound from James Burton and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus bathed the hall with soulful supplication and consolation.

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus
© Hilary Scott

Following something so mystical and sublime with Shostakovich’s Second Symphony and its twenty minutes of bloviation only accentuated the perfunctory gestures of the symphony. Written on commission to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, it has the air of an adolescent stuck at his desk grudgingly doing his homework while itching to be outside doing something else. Nevertheless, here the composer, barely 20, begins to experiment with the voice which would grow to characterize his work until the condemnation of 1936.

This was only the second performance ever by the BSO, the first coming this past summer at Tanglewood. There were some tentative entrances and a rough patch or two, but Nelsons kept the various strands distinct and the shifting layers and textures substituting for traditional symphonic development from thickening. The chorus energetically committed itself to the formulaic banality of the closing verses. If friends in the balcony were correct, the piercing factory whistle which introduces the chorus came from an iPad.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major might seem out of place in a program of novelties, but not the way Daniel Lozakovich and Nelsons played it. The concerto usually provides a young virtuoso with the opportunity to showcase speed, accuracy and facility. Lozakovich, instead, focused on its expressive range showcasing his skill playing soft, slow passages; his flawless harmonics; a pictorial use of rubato, portamento, and phrasing, and a knack for making his instrument sing long, unbroken lines in various voices. Finesse rather than force was the hallmark. Nelsons and the orchestra listened intently and responded in kind. Tempi in the first two movements were broad and relaxed with the performance clocking in just shy of 42 minutes. Forty years on in her career, Anne-Sophie Mutter revisited the Tchaikovsky rethinking every measure and rejuvenating the old warhorse. At 18, Lozakovich has accomplished something similar. It is intriguing to think what he will have to say about Tchaikovsky in 2059.

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