Concert Review: The Boston Symphony Orchestra Performs Thorvaldsdottir, Brahms, and Mozart

By Aaron Keebaugh

The music of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir embraces the elemental, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra skillfully waded into its searching mystery.

Andris Nelsons conducting conducts the Boston premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Archora at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir doesn’t make it a habit of describing her compositions in words. Rather, she prefers that listeners come to her mystical sound world on their own terms.

Still, many critics tend to see her exploitation of stasis and serene textures to be evocative of the Nordic landscape. The suggestion is that there may be more at work in her compositions than the generation of mere sound for its own sake. Perhaps the joy of listening to Thorvaldsdottir’s scores lies in imagining what they may mean — beyond what she herself has said about them.

At least those were my thoughts as I listened to ARCHORA, her most familiar work of the past few years. As played for the first time by conductor Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra this past weekend, the score invited mental speculation: the subtlest sonic gestures nurtured a a deep and moving encounter with meditative ideas.

What little Thorvaldsdottir has said about ARCHORA consists of vague musings on primordial energy and talk about parallel realities. To my ears, her rusting sonorities — interlaced with wistful stillnesses — generates an uneasy calm. It is like gazing into an existential abyss, though the experience is not accompanied by any Nietzschean angst. The music doesn’t cultivate madness or terror. Instead, what emerges are hints of hope and a feeling that being — even if only fleetingly — can be perceived in its spontaneous fullness.

Thorvaldsdottir achieves that otherworldly effect by lingering on passages to the point of discomfort. Her art frequently employs a glacial momentum. Throughout this 20-minute score, sounds drift and collide with each other almost freely; long breaths of tension, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte, dip and slide along

Along with that seeming disorder, she organizes her musical ideas in an almost lyrical sweep. Fragments of what feel like a chorale emerge from the mists drummed up by distant strings. The tunes resound momentarily before being swallowed back in the wistful mire. Nelsons led the orchestra on a vivid tour through ARCHORA‘s varied washes of color. This is music at its most elemental, and the BSO skillfully waded into its searching mystery.

There couldn’t have been a more suitable counterpart to Thorvaldsdottir’s work than Brahms’s Violin Concerto, which featured the return of violinist Hilary Hahn to Symphony Hall. Hahn played with both heroic assurance and blissful yearning, consistently imbuing her tone with a touch of grain which injected a live-wire intensity into every phrase, great or small. From the first movement’s frenzied arpeggios and soaring lines to the finale’s rustic zest, her phrases surged and sparkled due in no small part to her flawless technique.

Hahn also explored chamber-like delicacies along the way. Nelsons worked in tandem to ensure that the orchestra mirrored the violinist’s high-wire act between tension and consolation. During her subtler moments, Hahn’s line lifted easily over stylish oom-pah rhythms.

Hilary Hahn performing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Andris Nelsons and the BSO. Photo: Winslow Townson

In the second movement, John Ferrillo’s oboe solo provided mournful counterweight — like a weeping willow supporting a songbird. Hahn treated the movement as the love letter it is, generating as much sweetness as angst. In the finale, Hahn and the BSO tore through the festive rhythms with the go-at-it verve of a village band. Following three curtain calls, the violinist offered the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita in D minor as an encore, bringing the audience back to its feet.

Large-scale works like this are among Nelsons’ specialties; he deftly taps into the dramatic flair supplied by thick textures and sonorous blends. But the Latvian conductor finds himself on less secure footing with 18th-century music, which doesn’t always benefit from a similar Technicolor approach. Accordingly, his reading of Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in B-flat, K. 319 felt overly weighty and micromanaged. Yes, there were moments of tender lyricism. But the music didn’t dance.

Composed in 1779 for the smaller orchestral forces provided by Mozart’s native Salzburg, the score requires a light touch applied with mercurial zeal. Nelsons captured much of the grace in the outer movements. The orchestra’s textures sounded delightfully plush — if a bit unsure of itself. But the Menuetto failed to achieve its requisite lift, coming off as stiff and heavy-footed instead.

Nelsons worked his usual magic with the second movement, where the lines flashed with operatic warmth. While the conductor’s approach has the virtue of novelty, it often sacrifices rhythmic flow for the sake of lush sound. The most convincing Mozart performances need both.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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