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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Andris Nelsons makes his season debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

 Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with soloists Bernarda Fink (in red) and Ying Fang (in black, behind Nelsons), on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 in Symphony Hall. Winslow Townson photograph

Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with soloists Bernarda Fink (in red) and Ying Fang (in black, behind Nelsons), on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 in Symphony Hall. Winslow Townson photograph

During an discussion about the difficulties of memorization, an eminent pianist explained that he thought of the long works as a narrative, a story that ran organically from one idea to the next, proceeding like a novel from introduction to conclusion.

There can be no memorization in Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, and no point in trying anyway. But for Andris Nelsons’s return to Symphony Hall Thursday evening, revisiting a work he used to open the Tanglewood season in 2017, that same notion of organic narrative presented itself.

Not such an easy task, with a symphony that ventures ideas about life and loss, death and desire, dancing and marching—all in an hour-and-a-half. Mahler’s intent is ambitious, universal and broad; his execution is precise, inviting and accessible.

It’s a journey that has destiny, but it’s still a challenge. The narrative thread comes to a complete halt at times—a trenchant halt, at the end of the long first movement; and a musically astute series of halts, with numerous strongly marked caesuras throughout that same movement.

But the thread remains. The music—for all its complexity, and breadth of expression—feels chamber-like. Echos, doublings, harmonic shadings—the prime example coming in the slow second movement, as the treble strings and the bass strings, faced off across different sides of the stage, work over ideas one before the other, culminating in pizzicato treatments that draw the listener deep into the interplay.

Mahler wrote the first movement independently—as “Todtenfeier” (Funeral Rites), it existed in his mind as a separate work for many years. It still has that feeling of independence, and the pause—Nelsons addressed the audience in the five-minute gap between movements, explaining Mahler’s notion of rest; last year at Tanglewood he sat with the strings and chatted amiably—gives a decided notion of what that “rest” should be. More like a respite, from intense emotions.

The second movement continues the recuperation. A dance-like rhythm, and then a dramatic cello tune, form the basis of the give-and-take. The Scherzo feels cataclysmic, not comic. 

And the vocal movements—mezzo Bernarda Fink entering in the fourth movement with snippets of Klopstock’s poetic hymn (“Rise again, yes you will rise again”)—propel the music in another direction, and the listener as well. The challenges and changes of the first three movements become the path to resurrection (a title Mahler would not use for this symphony, but which suits).

Fink did not sing with the most assured voice—either wobbly vibrato, or an uncertainty of attack. The soloists both sit onstage for ages before they sing. But Fink swept up the verses with strong characterization, singing with compelling emotions, seeming every bit like a Mahler specialist.

Soprano Ying Fang waits even longer, until the final movement, singing mainly in juxtaposition with the chorus. When she was audible, the tone was exquisite. That wasn’t often. It made you want to hear her in recital, to get a better appreciation of her promising instrument.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus made an impressive season debut under director James Burton. In general, the Resurrection Symphony calls for musicianship, not power, and the ensemble blended beautifully with the soloists. 

To begin the evening, the TFC sang alone—a rarity—conducted by Burton in Maija Einfelde’s brief “Lux Aeterna.” One of several works the BSO has programmed to mark the centenary of Latvian independence—bringing a bit of Nelsons’ homeland to Boston—Einfelde’s setting mirrored the hushed, stark work of religious minimalists from neighboring countries, like Estonia’s Arvo Pärt. It was beautiful music, another aspect of this program that made you wish for more.

This Boston Symphony Orchestra program repeats Friday afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evenings. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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