This weekend’s program from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra has as its theme . . . well, it’s hard to detect one, unless it’s the letter “S”. James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula is followed by Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, for piano, trumpet and strings, with Yuja Wang and Thomas Rolfs, and then three excerpts from Smetana’s Má vlast (“My Homeland”). Even without thematic glue, the troika made for a satisfying bill. Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula got its BSO premiere Thursday, and the other two pieces aren’t heard often enough — this is just the sixth time the BSO has done the Shostakovich, and the first for Má vlast since 2007.
Lee, a former Composition Fellow at Tanglewood who’s also a Seventh-Day Adventist, got the evening off to a jubilant start with his Book of Revelation inspiration. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization of Detroit and premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach in 2011, Sukkot through Orion’s Nebula loads its 10 minutes with a fair bit of background. Sukkot, or the Festival of Tabernacles, is a week-long Jewish celebration mentioned in Exodus as a harvest festival and in Leviticus as a commemoration of the Exodus; in John 7, Jesus goes to the Festival of the Tabernacles. The constellation Orion is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible; to some, Revelation 4 suggests that the throne of God is in the Orion Nebula (located just south of Orion’s belt).
In any case, Lee is drawing on Revelation, on the harvesting of the earth by a sickle-wielding angel in chapter 14, and on the subsequent coming of the New Jerusalem. In his extensive essay, he explains that “the work is loosely constructed in a ternary form of seven small sections.” We’re meant to hear “reminiscences of the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)” in the snare and bass drums, and then the French horns imitating the call of the shofar. God’s advent is greeted with dancing, after which the Messiah descends from Orion Nebula followed by the New Jerusalem. The shofar theme is heard again, and the celebration rises to a call-and-response climax.
I’m not sure how much of all that an audience armed with just the title — which is how I first listened to Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula — would be able to make out. The initial pounding of the bass drum recalls the 11 thunderbolts that introduce “The Glorification of the Chosen One” in The Rite of Spring; the shofar horns, when they enter, seem an Annunciation. After some 90 seconds, the awe and dread make room for some rhythmic, festive bustling. Three and a half minutes in, the tempo slows, the texture lightens and grows starry, and we’re invited to contemplate the heavens. The third section begins at the 7:30 mark: the shofar and the bass drum re-enter and the celebration gets raucous.
Nelsons’s interpretation was raucous from the start, as if all Creation were anticipating the Second Coming. The brass made the shofar calls almost scary; the trio of marimba, vibraphone, and xylophone had ample room to play. The central section was celestial thanks to harp and celesta; the closing pages reveled in ecstasy, as if each saint and angel had his or her own instrument. I detected further tiny echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite, and they seemed appropriate as allusions from one religious work to another.
Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula was better received than many contemporary pieces, but it was the entrance of the composer himself that brought the audience to its feet, and then he was called back for a second bow. It can’t be often that an African-American composer gets to take bows on the Symphony Hall stage. These were well deserved, and I hope we hear the piece again soon.
Shostakovich composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1933, in the wake of successful pieces that included the ballet scores The Bolt and The Golden Age, incidental music for Hamlet, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and the 24 Preludes for Piano. It started out, the composer later said, as a trumpet concerto; he added piano and eventually it evolved into a piano concerto with trumpet. Shostakovich himself was the piano soloist at the premiere, which was given with the Leningrad Philharmonic in October 1933.
The composer’s confidence is palpable throughout the four movements: Allegretto–Allegro vivace; Lento; Moderato; Allegro con brio. He starts off by alluding to Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata, and he keeps you off balance throughout with quotations. Some will be familiar, like the trumpet’s suggestion of the “Lone Ranger” conclusion to Rossini’s William Tell Overture (Shostakovich returns to that overture in his 15th Symphony) and the hints of Beethoven’s “Rage over a Lost Penny” rondo-caprice (which eventually becomes the cadenza of the concerto’s finale). References to Haydn’s D-major piano sonata, or to the composer’s own Hamlet and Golden Age scores, perhaps not so much. In any case, you never quite know what to expect from music that turns from serious to sarcastic in a heartbeat. The first movement is a combination rondo and sonata form and the second a slow waltz with an intense central section. The third begins rhapsodically, and just as you’re wondering where the composer is going, it evaporates, after a mere 100 seconds, into the maniacally comic finale. The whole thing is Shostakovich’s entire world in under 25 minutes.
I didn’t quite hear his entire world in Thursday’s performance. Right from that initial Appassionata quote Wang’s approach seemed uninflected. The Allegro vivace second subject sped by in a blur; the music-box Lento sounded wistful without heartbreak; the Allegro con brio finale brought a lot of pounding. I was surprised to see BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs sitting in the middle of the stage and not alongside Wang, where his refined tone and poetic phrasing might have been heard to better effect. Nelsons, for his part, kept the accompaniment compact.
It was all just a slight disappointment after the considered Schumann concerto Wang and Nelsons gave us back in February. Nelsons’s hands-off approach, which has worked so well in the Shostakovich symphonies, didn’t show to advantage here, and Wang seemed caught up in the piece as a pianistic showcase. She played as fabulously as ever, and Rolfs produced many melting moments, particularly in the loopy second episode of the finale, where the trumpeter appears to have rejoined the proceedings after a quick one at his local. Overall, though, I heard too much madcap mania and not enough sorrow or witty music-hall parody.
Even the inevitable encore — one of Wang’s regular choices, the Art Tatum version of “Tea for Two” — felt chaste. The irony is that there’s also a Shostakovich “Tea for Two.” In 1927, on a bet, the composer re-orchestrated the 1924 song in under an hour, and the result is full of affectionate sly humor. Too bad the BSO couldn’t have followed Wang’s encore with one of its own.
Smetana composed Má vlast, a set of six symphonic poems, between 1874 and 1879 as a celebration of his Bohemian homeland. Vyšehrad focuses on the Prague fortress that was the seat of the earliest Czech kings. Vltava (better known as The Moldau, after the German name) pays tribute to the great river that runs through Prague. Šárka commemorates a female warrior of Czech legend. Z českých luhů a hájů (“From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests”) depicts the Czech countryside. Tábor takes us to the stronghold that the pre-Protestant Hussites founded in southern Bohemia, and Blaník is named for the nearby mountain where sleeps an army of knights headed by St. Wenceslas that will, in time to need, awake to help the Czech people.
The entire cycle runs some 75 minutes, so it was never going to fit on this program. And though, apart from Vltava, recording normally offer the set complete, Smetana intended each piece to stand on its own. For these performances, Nelsons has chosen Vltava, Z českých luhů a hájů, and Blaník. It’s a fair selection given that Vltava and Z českých luhů a hájů are the most popular of the set and Blaník rounds off the cycle. We do lose some thematic connections. The four-note Vyšehrad motif that starts the cycle returns at the end of Vltava when the river rushes past the fortress. And Tábor and Blaník quote the same Hussite hymn, “Ktož jsú Boží bojovníci” (“You Who Are Warriors of God”).
Vltava, by far the best known of the six pieces, has its story outlined in the score. We hear the sources of the river in a delicate 6/8 burbling; two streams combine to form the mighty, folk-like main theme. The Vltava passes by a forest and we hear hunting horns; at the end of this section there’s an allusion to the Rheingold Prelude. A peasant wedding brings a polka in 2/4, after which the moon rises and the nymphs come out. The 6/8 main theme resumes and has a rocky time with St. John’s Rapids, but then the fortress looms triumphantly overhead and we hear the Vyšehrad theme before the river runs on to join the Elbe.
Smetana wrote of Z českých luhů a hájů that “It is a painting of the feelings that fill one when gazing at the Bohemian landscape. On all sides singing, both gay and melancholic, resounds from fields and woods: the forest regions, depicted on the solo horn; the gay, fertile lowlands of the Elbe valley are the subject of rejoicing. Everyone may draw his own picture according to his own imagination; for the poet has an open path before him, even though he must follow the individual parts of the work.” No story here, then, but the turbulent beginning seems held over from Šárka, where warrior maidens deceive and kill a band of armed men. Once the forest quiets down, we hear a clarinet themes that Smetana associated with a peasant girl walking in the fields. A fugato section evolves into a majestic French horn melody in 3/4 (you could waltz to it) that Smetana described as noon on a summer’s day, and that in turn is interrupted by an allegro polka. It’s not all sunshine and dancing: toward the end the ominous atmosphere returns.
Blaník takes up where Tábor left off, with the hammering motto theme derived from the Hussite hymn. After a couple of minutes an oboe introduces a pastoral melody that’s echoed by a horn. Eventually the chorale tune returns, this time in its third line, as a march announced by the horns. There’s more dance music, the motto theme is joined by the Vyšehrad theme, and it all ends in a blaze of Czech glory.
Nelsons started Vltava well, with unusually crisp burbling from flutes and then clarinets as the two streams joined. The tempo was moderate, which was fine, but it stayed that way as we passed the hunting party, and then the measured polka had no dance impulse. Every moment evinced a scrupulous plan, though nothing quite stood out, from the moonlit nymphs to the ruined castles, and the arrival of the Vyšehrad produced no joyousness. I missed the ebb and flow that Rafael Kubelík brought to his 1971 recording with the BSO.
Z českých luhů a hájů also seemd a shade neutral — and in this case a shade quick. There was drama to start with, and then a release into the woods. Here again, though, the big horn melody didn’t open out, and the polka didn’t afford much contrast, Nelsons keeping his focus tight to the end. He did better with Blaník, where the initial Hussite theme gave way to a lilting pastoral before the second Hussite theme rang out. The dance music danced, the march music marched, and the returning themes came with animation, and, at last, heroic stature.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.