It’s bold to bring the violinist Leonidas Kavakos to Symphony Hall to conduct and solo with the BSO. His playing is smart and unorthodox and his conducting yields imperfect performances that nonetheless capture something beyond the sum of the notes. On Thursday night he led the first of four programs of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C.
He began the Mozart concerto with his back to the audience while playing along with the orchestral tutti. With the first solo entrance it became clear that this was an earthy interpretation of Mozart, a composer whose concertos are more typically rendered with gleaming elegance. Kavakos has a rich and grounded tone on the violin, which he approaches with a relaxed physicality and an unusual, almost draped, posture. The orchestra, on the other hand, was quite stiff as it provided a polite backdrop. Kavakos occasionally conducted from the violin but more often left the ensemble to fend for itself. More pushback and assured independence from the orchestral players would have helped the performance, but it nonetheless came off as an artistically sophisticated and unflashy interpretation. Kavakos’s first movement cadenza, a concise, beautiful thing, stood out as a moment to remember.
For the Prokofiev, Kavakos returned to the stage with a baton in hand. The symphony, in some ways, felt more prototypically “classical” than the interpretation of the Mozart that preceded it. Prokofiev’s colors were transparent and the rhetoric clearly delineated. The conductor drew exuberant moments from the orchestra in the first movement Allegro, crafted lucid lines and a chilling end to the Largo, and the Vivace flew by like an unspooling thread. The effect was so good that perhaps it is best not to dwell too much on how strange Kavakos looks on the podium. But in contrast to his relaxed violin technique, his conducting is puppet-like and physically awkward. At the start of the Prokofiev he swayed back and forth like a cross between a penguin and a pendulum metronome. Sometimes his signs are unusually literal—stooping low for low notes and raising his hands up high for high ones. But his gestures aren’t self-conscious exaggerations—this is how he communicates. And he drew a visceral energy from the ensemble.
After intermission, he led the orchestra in the Schumann. The sound overall was unusually string-heavy with an oddly disconnected blend between horns and strings at the opening of the first movement. This isn’t a perfectly composed symphony in the first place, and this performance was a bit ragged on top of that, but still the interpretation had great moments and was quite affecting in the big picture. As the first movement developed, the music grew more bracing and Kavakos had a way of drawing explosive playing from the ensemble at key points in the score. The Andante, perhaps, should have been more sculpted in its melodic phrasing and sometimes the pulse was slack, but the sections of contrapuntal string writing were beautifully rendered. The finale emerged warmly and had a rousing ending helped by the timpani.
It seems that the BSO is quite open to letting unusual musicians pull double duty as conductor. In 2011 Anne-Sophie Mutter gave the Gala Opening Night performance as violinist and conductor, Kavakos made one previous appearance on a similar program in 2012, and composer-conductors Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adès have both made recent appearances. It’s valuable to sometimes open the podium to musicians outside the full-time maestro set for a greater diversity of vision. Under Kavakos’s baton, the BSO sounded a little more rough-hewn than usual, but perfection in the notes isn’t the highest good in music anyhow. This concert felt like it came from the hands of an artist seeking something different.