Boston’s first live look at a newcomer on the international circuit, Baiba Skride, could be described as nothing less—and maybe something much more—than a brilliant debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night. The young Latvian violinist brought some enthusiasts instantaneously to their feet upon the final punch of the keynote A ending Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Others quickly followed, as high spirits took over Symphony Hall, encouraging a somewhat surprised Skride back on stage. With the ovation suddenly hushed and harmonies of muted approval rippling about the virtually full house, Baiba Skride rested her violin under her chin and began the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.
Resuming a kind of “call and response,” the audience answered with soft ohs and oohs, then an immediate outpouring of staccato hand clapping. More buzz, all over Skride, bubbled up throughout intermission. It was a program of two mighty Russian works, one running the better part of three quarters of an hour, and the other nearly a full hour. It was also an evening featuring two Latvians, and to boot, both soloist and conductor were born in Riga. Both would call this a musical collaboration, so it is not merely by coincidence that these two Riga natives were on stage together. Still quite new to us, having appeared only twice last year with the BSO (one of these at Tanglewood), Andris Nelsons led the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a favorite of many symphony regulars who, judging by their boisterous response, were not in the very least disappointed by the young Latvian.
Undertones of Skride and Nelsons caught hold of Shostakovich’s long opening movement entitled “Nocturne” and would not let go. Her bow told us much about the ghostliness and ephemeral of night-times by moving in varying degrees toward and away from the fingerboard, while her fingers tuned to this and that note, now singing, now sighing. A few times from her adept fingers came a slight slide between two notes as if a tiny tear had fallen down her cheek. On the podium, with an imposing physique, Nelsons, hunched over almost to the very top of his music stand, signaled evanescent pianissimos and transitory hues from an ever so finely blended BSO. Superlative sound and sagacity opened my ears into compleat receptors.
With the Scherzo underway, I began sensing a separation from feelings, perhaps a result of the clashing moods of these two adjacent movements. Further in, the more complex reflective Passacaglia paired with a Burlesque created a similar leave-taking. But there was more, Skride’s violin and Nelsons’s directing, for me, increasingly externalized the linear webs craftily spun by the prolific Shostakovich. Inner fire, or tension as many have defined one of Shostakovich’s favored emotional states, diminished. Nevertheless, stunning in its sheer surface, this brilliant performance commanded undivided attention and resolute appreciation. I also thought that Skride, deciding more and more on a biting bow, was wearing.
What transpired in the concerto essentially played out in the symphony. Nelsons’s crispy clean calculations stirred admiration for his smartly turning a phrase, one such, so splendidly phrased was the Valse’s first theme. Many of Tchaikovsky’s many melodies were to receive the conductor’s ever-so-close attention to the smallest details. Noticeable too, though, were the little solos, such as the bassoon’s in the Valse that was articulated smoothly, evenly, if not a bit blandly (it is usually jaunty).
Orchestral transparency, on the one hand, was as optimal as to be imagined; but on the other, spontaneity appeared to have been sacrificed to attain other symphonic ideals in vogue these days.