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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Looking for a hero: the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Widmann, Strauss and Mozart, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.

Looking for a hero: the Boston Symphony Orchestra performs Widmann, Strauss and Mozart, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.

 The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, with soloists Yo-Yo Ma (left) and Steven Ansell (right of Nelsons), Thursday, March 29 at Symphony Hall. Robert Torres photograph

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, with soloists Yo-Yo Ma (left) and Steven Ansell (right of Nelsons), Thursday, March 29 at Symphony Hall. Robert Torres photograph

It’s not often Yo-Yo Ma gets upstaged. The magical cellist packed the house Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, and wowed his followers with a typically over-the-top performance. But the focus of this Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was German composer Jörg Widmann.

Widmann’s “Partita,” given its American premiere here after its debut earlier this month in Leipzig with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, is another cornerstone in the developing relationship between the two ensembles. On the surface that relationship may seem a contrivance: they share a music director, Andris Nelsons. Many orchestras share a music director.

But the two organizations are working hard to create a meaningful discourse, and commissioning works like this robust, accessible and musically informed “Partita” becomes an immediate benefit for audiences.

“Partita” pays homage to the past, as you would expect from the title. It has the shape of Bach, and the sound of Mendelssohn. Its five movements—basically, the suite format that Bach loved—pivot round a central Divertimento, which has little to do with Bach or Mendelssohn.

But the flanking movements certainly do. A dark Gigue opens—dark in tempo and in pitch, taking its cue from the bass clarinet opening. That opening emerges from nothing—barely audible at first. The entire movement stays touching and elegant, with only brief forays into brisker tempos and brighter moods. The idea of Bach is there, but the proportions are askew. The movement’s exact marking, “Grave—Gigue,” makes it seem that a fast dance episode will emerge, and dominate. It never does; it only makes an attempt. 

The Andante takes up a Mendelssohn melody, from a clarinet sonata. It’s articulated by English horn (Robert Sheena), but the colors are supplied by the first violins, both as soloist (stoutly played by Alexander Velinzon in the first chair) and in the section itself, frequently divided by desk or straight down the middle.

The Divertimento is a burlesque, arrhythmic at times, strongly accented (often on the wrong foot, for good measure). It stops short of being a complete parody, but only just. Charles Ives seems only a measure away, before the cadence brings us abruptly to another key and the movement vanishes.

The Sarabande opens with a heavily slurred bassoon opening, high in the register. The movement is highlighted by a progression: from low to high, first the basses, then the cellos, then violas, then seconds and finally to the firsts. An undeveloped melody, it cannot be called a fugue, or even a canon. It hardly changes, but has the effect of a growing chorus of approval.

The finale, marked Chaconne, acts like a passacaglia, with figures growing over a ground bass. We’re deep into Bach here: again the ideas pass through the instrument sections, this time reaching lots of dissonant tension before the cadence. There, bells break forth—almost jarring in their unexpected pleasantness—before the orchestra sweeps to a conclusion.

“Partita” satisfies on many levels. Its historical forms serve as linchpins, giving listeners easy reference. But it moves briskly and unflinchingly away from that history—even in the second movement, when the Mendelssohn melody won’t quit—and exudes a contemporary sound. It has humor, structure, and a surprising density for a work that doesn’t create undue tension or develop intense contrapuntal ideas.

Upstage Yo-Yo Ma? Yeah, that’s not a thing. With Strauss’s “Don Quixote” filling out the second half of the program, Yo-Yo had the perfect vehicle for his strengths: musicianship, strong characterization, collaboration. 

Face it: he holds the cello in positions no student would ever be allowed to—scroll away from the body, the bow almost always in precariously non-contact positions. His manner onstage might infuriate other musicians and conductors—if it weren’t for his stupendous playing, his attention to detail, and his incessant search for the real music inherent in the mere notes.

Appreciation of the solo work of principal viola Steven Ansell, in the second, Sancho Panza, solo part; and of Tamara Smirnova (violin), John Ferrillo (the Dulcinea oboe theme), Thomas Rolfs (trumpet), Richard Svoboda (bassoon) and Elizabeth Rowe (flute) must be included in any appreciation of this terrific performance. But Strauss’s “Quixote” needs a hero—or needs the search for a hero—and Yo-Yo was always at the center of that.

Mozart No. 23 as a concert opener? Far more interesting that most of the “find something that lasts only eight minutes” overtures we usually hear. Music director Andris Nelsons had a sense for each of Mozart’s updated conventions. And its programming, because of the internal movement oboe melody, bookended the program nicely.

CADENCES: Much BSO business this week. The orchestra has finally filled the principal cello chair, with longstanding section member Blaise Déjardin winning the audition. In an insert to Thursday’s program, the orchestra announced the upcoming retirements of hornist Jonathan Menkis (after 34 years), violinist Nancy Bracken (39 years), and bass player James Orleans (35 years). None of them are leaving until later in the year. And, in truly personal news, Nelsons and his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, have announced their divorce. Statements from both say they will continue their professional relationship. Opolais is already scheduled to sing with the orchestra and Nelsons at Tanglewood (in a semi-staged “La Bohème” this July), and during the 2018-19 season (February appearances in Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater”).

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs music of Mozart, Jörg Widmann and Strauss this afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evening at Symphony Hall. 888-266-1200; bso.org

A Far Cry, with the Miró Quartet: Beethoven, Puts, Strauss

A Far Cry, with the Miró Quartet: Beethoven, Puts, Strauss

Two voices from our Age of Anxiety: Shostakovich and Bernstein. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.

Two voices from our Age of Anxiety: Shostakovich and Bernstein. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.