Echoes of 1961 suffused the opening of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 139th season with the programming of two works by Francis Poulenc. On January 20th, Charles Munch led the world premiere of the Gloria preceded by the Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra with the composer as one of the soloists. Thursday night, these two pieces bracketed another world premiere, Eric Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven’s Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra.

Arthur and Lucas Jussen with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Winslow Townson
Arthur and Lucas Jussen with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Winslow Townson

You can’t beat virtuosity and precision. Top them off with high spirits and a playful call and response between two kinetic soloists like Lucas and Arthur Jussen and the result is something special. The concerto is one of Poulenc’s most mischievous and mercurial mixes of styles and attitudes. The opening crack, like the report of a starting gun, set the Jussens off at a breakneck pace. They and Andris Nelsons vividly captured the shifting moods and colors of the first movement with its arresting gamelan-like conclusion, painting the slow second theme as a realm of mists and raindrops. After the soothing repose of the Larghetto, it was off to the races again. An anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better quality to some of the piano exchanges lent a hint of genial fraternal competition to the joyful conclusion.

Arthur Jussen returned with a bright, liquid tone, dynamic sensitivity and a remarkably even trill for the meandering Choral Fantasy. Beethoven tended to improvise his way into piano pieces, not filling in the score until after the first performance. Jussen successfully imbued the gravity of the opening with just such an improvisatory quality. Thanks to him and Nelsons, spontaneity and exuberance threaded their way throughout. As voices and words came to dominate, the performance took flight in a celebration of the joys of art and life.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, pianist Arthur Jussen and vocal soloists © Winslow Townson
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, pianist Arthur Jussen and vocal soloists
© Winslow Townson

Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra is an 18-minute-long celebration of a lifelong association with the BSO – first as a young audience member at Tanglewood, then student/performer and composer – and of the joy of music-making itself. Two blasts from the orchestra like the blare of a midtown Manhattan traffic jam contrasted quieter episodes as Nathan juxtaposed the hubbub of the outside world with the calm and focus of the concert hall. Ripples of melodic fragments rose from the winds as the music tentatively calmed and coalesced around the material being introduced. The strings then began a slow lamentation. Winds had their say, while seismic brass insinuated themselves to dominate the closing of this section. Scurrying strings sliced by slashing interventions from other sections dominated the next part, which ended in abrupt silence. Themes and motives from the first section return recombined and transformed to populate the closing. A tinge of sadness intensified, but the concerto ended in the bright light of a unison. Nelsons’ keen sense of clarity and architecture gave each section breathing room to make its point. Even the loudest passages did not blur the profiles of the instruments involved. Nathan mentioned a 2018 performance of Lutoslawski’s Third Symphony as a major influence, but there was were also hints of Berg and a wink or two in Bartók’s direction which struck the ear on a first listen. Richly textured and at times dense, Nathan’s concerto nevertheless invited another hearing under Nelsons’ probing guidance and the characterful playing of the orchestra.

Poulenc’s Gloria tied the program’s celebratory thread up into a bright bow of the sacred and profane, embodied by the solo soprano voice and chorus respectively. Nelsons adopted brisk tempi and bright colors slowing and deepening the color only for Nicole Cabell’s Domine Deus solos. Cabell’s warm, amber voice effortlessly floated and spun long unbroken lines. Maintaining a smooth flow occasionally worked against crisp diction in an otherwise transcendent performance. The chorus sang with lively and colorful aplomb. Except for a brief moment in the Laudamus te, Poulenc’s tricky rhythms posed no challenge.

Many of the BSO’s past openings have been billed as galas. Though Thursday’s wasn’t, it turned out to be perhaps the most gala opener in recent memory with the joy and vitality of its music-making setting a high bar for the rest of the season.


*****