Two musical essays on creation, a concerto, a symphony, two soloists and a composer-conductor provided Thursday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert—yet another twist for the current season. Worldwide celebrity Dawn Upshaw haunted Sibelius’s myth-born Luonnotar. Thomas Adès led his own oozing and pulsating In Seven Days for piano and orchestra with Kirill Gerstein making his BSO subscription series debut as a clairvoyant soloist in both the Adès and Prokofiev’s First Concerto. There was shining sound everywhere throughout the evening up to the final whispered notes of the Finnish composer’s Sixth Symphony under a dancing, and sometimes prissy, baton of Adès.
Given such a combination of pieces, expectations can run high. Or, looking at the vacant seats around Symphony Hall, perhaps the BSO’s programming had the opposite effect on concert-goers. I left the hall humming “the three whales that hold the concerto together” or that “blow to the head” (po cherepu) recalled by annotator Harlow Robinson—Prokofiev’s five-note phrase first heard over and again in the opening bars. It is still hard to believe that the Russian started his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major at age 19, completing it before he was 21. Gerstein’s polish, power, and prowess played well with the perfection-bound and sun-filled sonorities of the BSO.
And how did all those whales sing, with accents carrying the way, or with more evenness? Swells, big and bigger ones as if the “whales” were making wave after wave, moving closer and closer, into one mammoth wave reaching a giant climax. The slower middle part of the one-movement concerto touched upon loveliness but more swells from the orchestra became a conscious endeavor. As strongly as he could produce the octaves in the final approach to the end of the concerto, Gerstein’s playing could not be heard as it was disappointingly overpowered by the large orchestra.
A peek at the ending lines of Luonnotar informs: “From the cracked egg’s upper fragment rose the lofty arch of heaven/From the white the upper fragment/Rose the moon that shines so brightly/All that in the egg was mottled/ Now became the stars in heaven.” I would have preferred a purer environment than what Dawn Upshaw created, more a reflection of a can-this-really-be-so, rather than a this-is-how-it-all-happened kind of interpretation. Those haunting Sibelius notes rising and falling just above and below normal melodic destinations that would have us encounter the miraculous creation figured less in her performance.
It was an evening for basking in glorious orchestral colors; breathing, though, was another matter. London born Thomas Adès, who, besides being both a composer and conductor, is also a pianist and, by the way, will be appearing at Jordan Hall this coming Sunday with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Abundantly gifted and a consummate musician, Adès, is blazing many trails. His creation piece of seven movements, that followed Luonnotar, surprisingly never allowed for a space wherein we could catch our collective breaths. One listener put it this way, “I didn’t get it. Maybe I need to hear the piece again.” Another commented, “I don’t want to hear it again. I thought it would never end.”
Its relentless pulsing, especially in the piano, its respiratory life obviated, In Seven Days bespoke the creation in a language of post-industrial machinery and 24-7 nonstop culture. The big bang preceding “Stars—Sun—Moon” was one of a number of brilliant flashes, two others were the completely stunning, almost faster-than-the-speed-of-sound passages, one from Cynthia Meyer, piccolo and the other from James Sommerville, Principal Horn. Much too much fuss, though, over minutiae stalled the densely composed sound picture.
Overall, one major element of music making hardly factored into a concert that appeared at first glance to be most promising. Even the concluding work, Symphony No. 6, Op. 104 by Jan Sibelius, bound to boldness, subjugated breath. Life came into question.