A month in and a thread tying together the programs of the second half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season has become clear: composers with unique voices who either toy with the traditional forms and practices of the late 19th century, or completely subvert them while exploiting to the fullest the coloristic potential of a large orchestra. This week’s adventurous program of works by Olly Wilson, Karol Szymanowski, and Aaron Copland continues the trend.

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in Copland's Third Symphony © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in Copland's Third Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Wilson, a composer, performer, and musicologist who died last March, enriched many of his compositions with the fruits of his studies of African, African-American and electronic music, and with his experience in jazz combos. In Lumina, a 1981 commission for the American Composers Orchestra, he intended to explore in sound the concept of “luminosity”. Luminosity as glow is treated both coloristically and structurally as the piece radiates from the glimmer of a single chord. A series of staccato responses, varying in tempo, timbre, texture, and rhythm – and calling on instruments’ highest and lowest ranges for contrast – surges from that initial sound. Conductor Andris Nelsons sharply and dramatically etched the shifting rhythms and tempi in this unusually percussive piece, as Lumina gleamed with the cool light of a night sky dappled with stars.

Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1 glows with a much different light, that of a rapturous, surreal dreamworld of uncertain tonality inspired by the lush poetry of Tadeusz Miciński’s May Night, with its references to woodland sounds, a couple “burning in love’s conflagration” under sapphire and amethyst skies, Pan’s flute, Abderrahman I, builder of the Alcazar Palace, and characters from Polish folklore. The poem’s dominant metaphor – the mayfly, with its brief lifespan – dominates the concerto in the crowded brevity of its single movement, in a series of buzzing, flitting rhythmic figures, as well as in the high-flying writing for the violin as it urgently darts and dives and soars above the orchestra until abruptly expiring in a faint, flutter of wings. The same syncretic, allusive style infused with Orientalism familiar from other works, like The Love Songs of Hafiz and Król Roger, suffuses the coat of many colors the orchestra spreads out under the soloist.

Lisa Batiashvili performs Szymanowski's Violin Concerto with BSO and Andris Nelsons © Winslow Townson
Lisa Batiashvili performs Szymanowski's Violin Concerto with BSO and Andris Nelsons
© Winslow Townson

Lisa Batiashvili gave her first performances of the concerto with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra last Spring. This being only her second outing, the score was on a stand to her left, but she turned the page just once, after the initial vivace assai episode. Batiashvili’s violin sang with a steady amber-hued tone which whitened slightly in the highest passages but never turned cold. It floated like gossamer above the orchestra, trilling and nearly vanishing in several dazzling pianissimo passages. Nelsons and the orchestra provided a background as Dionysian and luxuriant as that of a Gustave Moreau painting.

Copland may not have been inspired by a poem when he came to write his Third Symphony for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the BSO, but it’s difficult not to think of the lyrics (all of them) to America the Beautiful when hearing it. As a wartime symphony, it is as quintessentially American in its response as last month’s Vaughan Williams' Fifth was quintessentially British. A snapshot of an optimistic, can-do America looking both to the immediate present of Allied victory and the postwar future, it endures precisely because it embodies symphonically an expansive nation with its “alabaster cities”, “purple mountains majesties” and “amber waves of grain” and gives voice to the country’s ceaseless yearning to “crown [its] good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”. The ten-bar cut first made by Bernstein in 1948 and later sanctioned by Copland was restored for these performances.

Nelsons stamped his interpretation by according an unusual Brucknerian weight and pace to the more monumental passages and the brass and percussion throughout. The first movement rose with the warmth and promise of dawn over a mountainous landscape, blazed, then faded. The fanfares announcing the second movement sounded like a summons to something more consequential than the frolicking scherzo which follows. Nelsons resisted the tendency to rush articulating clearly the rhythmic variety of this movement (so clearly, in fact, that one could hear for the first time snatches of unintended echoes of the dawn music from Madama Butterfly’s intermezzo). After a mysterious, troubling, but ultimately comforting third movement, Nelsons gathered the various strands of 1942’s Fanfare for the Common Man lurking in the previous movements and built them into such an incandescent and powerful affirmation that it continued to resonate outside the hall as a timely reminder not only of who we are, but what we hope to be.

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