Apple slices and honey were not on offer at intermission, but the shofar did sound in Symphony Hall Friday afternoon thanks to the horns in James Lee III’s celebratory phantasmagoria Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. Embracing the theological concept of Typology in which “types” in the Old Testament prefigure “antitypes” in the New, Lee blends threads from the OT (the High Holy Days; the location of God’s throne in the Orion Nebula; Sukkot, “The Feast of Tabernacles”) with those from the NT (primarily parts of Revelation and the concepts of the Second Coming and the New Jerusalem) creating a dense fabric of allusions reflected in a dense fabric of sound lasting approximately ten minutes.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Tabernacles is, amongst other things, a Fall harvest festival, occurring when the constellation of Orion rules the night sky. It is also an inclusive celebration, actively seeking the participation of Gentiles in anticipation of the Messianic Epoch when all nations would flock to Jerusalem. Lee is a devout Seventh Day Adventist. His faith is inclusive as well, incorporating many aspects and observances of OT Judaism, most notably the day of and rules for the Sabbath. That spirit and Adventism’s joy and optimism animate his music.

Nelsons and the Boston Symphony began the seven brief sections each loosely structured in ternary form with the majesty and power of percussion and brass, evoking Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The horns joined in mimicking the shofar’s call to reflect and repent, a conspicuous, rhythmically arresting exchange between marimba and percussion tugged at the ear, then the full orchestra added its voice in the second section developing themes and melodies from the first, building to a mighty cadence. Joyous wind arabesques and dance rhythms dominated the third section with percussion, piano, harp and strings eventually joining the give-and-take; previous melodies and motifs were passed around the full orchestra in the fourth, growing and morphing in the process as this section with its bright palette celebrated the Second Coming; an ethereal fifth section described the descent of the Messiah through the Orion constellation with translucent textures, diaphanous, evanescent strings, and sparkling cascades from the glass wind chimes and celesta. The bass and snare drums announced the rejoicing of the sixth section with the shofar motif, shifting to a loud, celebratory call-and-response with jazzy flourishes in the closing part. The unabashed jubilance of the performance garnered enthusiastic and prolonged applause for Nelsons, the orchestra, and the composer.

Shostakovich began a trumpet concerto, then decided to write a piano concerto with a small string orchestra and a prominent role for a trumpet soloist. Perhaps for recording purposes, Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs was seated alone slightly more to the front of where the first flute would be. Also, Assistant Principal Viola Cathy Basrak was apart from her section in front of the podium to Nelsons’ right.

The vivacious Yuja Wang, sparkling like a star from Orion’s Belt, embodied the flash, brilliance and wry, irreverent humor of Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto with spontaneity, dynamism, and precision as her fingers flew across the keyboard.. As is often the case with Shostakovich, there are clouds on the horizon, an aspect Nelsons and Wang illuminated in a second movement waltz, wistful and at times sad, and in the solo opening of the third movement which took on the weight and color of a funeral march. Rolfs, using two trumpets, was the irrepressible, disrespectful adolescent to Wang’s often exasperated adult, using timbre and articulation to convey the riot of mockery, parody and provocation which characterizes his part. The piano often chides the trumpet when it goes too far. With one succinct chord and appropriate body language in the fourth movement, Wang’s rebuke elicited a gale of laughter. Keeping the William Tell Overture from breaking out despite the rambunctious insistence of trumpet and orchestra seemed to be the piano’s primary role as they all galloped in a blaze of speed to the finish.

Three selections from Mà vlast – Vltava, From Bohemia’s Wood’s and Fields and Blaník – filled the second half with vivid scene painting and Bohemian panoramas. Adopting a deliberate pace which allowed every detail of the river’s genesis at the confluence of the Warm and Cold Vltava to shine, Nelsons deftly traced the river’s course to Prague and onward. The village dance may have been subdued as a result but the moonlit nightfall episode benefited, glowing with the silvery sheen of a Chopin nocturne.The sun-dappled Bohemian idyll of the second selection was a reverie shadowed by contrasting chiaroscuro effects. Blaník, dominated by a Hussite, hymn, closed the afternoon’s potpourri as it had opened – on a brassy, majestic religious note.

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