This week’s program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra featured fewer locally known quantities than usual. It was the Symphony Hall subscription series debut of American conductor Karina Canellakis, a veteran of the Tanglewood Music Center and the first woman to become chief conductor of the Netherlands’ Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the BSO debut altogether of violinist Nicola Benedetti, the first woman and first Scot to direct the Edinburgh International Festival since its 1947 founding. And the repertoire, all Central European, was chestnut-free; a Dvořák deep cut to start things off, and two 20th-century Polish concertos: Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. That might partially explain why attendance at Thursday evening’s performance was sparser than it could have been; the slushy weather probably didn’t help either.
As I write this on Friday, Saturday evening’s forecast is calling for clear skies, so if you’re reading this before the final performance of this program, this one is absolutely worth leaving the house for. Catch WCRB’s broadcast if you must, but the Lutosławski concerto in particular is best heard live and played by a sterling orchestra with a conductor who knows where to pull back versus where to let loose, and you’ll find both at Symphony Hall.
The Concerto for Orchestra itself is a curious beast. Compared to the piece of the same title by Bartók, it’s not what anyone would call a repertoire staple. Canellakis is only the third conductor to have led it with the BSO since Stanislaw Skrowaczewski led it during several concerts in the late 1960s. Cheerful, sprightly Polish folk melodies are layered with roiling non-tonal counterpoint. Several things are always simultaneously happening at any given time except for during a clear and tranquil chorale near the end of the piece, which stands out all the more for its simplicity. One of the reasons it’s best heard live in the concert hall is because interfering noise puts it at a disadvantage. It’s already easy for this concerto to bog down into grayish muck: the thing that happens when too many colors of paint mix together.
At no point did this happen on Thursday. Canellakis maintained a steady forward momentum, and the colors and textures of sound contributed by each instrumental section and soloist were cohesive but crisply distinct. Listening to the performance brought to mind the feeling of looking at one of Wassily Kandinsky’s enormous “Composition” paintings, in which shapes, colors, and lines collide and converge into an improbable but satisfying whole.
Canellakis began the concert by leading the first BSO performances in more than a century of Dvořák’s “Wood Dove (Holoubek),” sometimes translated as “The Wild Dove”: a tone poem based on a macabre Czech folk ballad about a woman who poisons her husband and continues to be haunted by guilt (represented by a dove singing on her husband’s grave) after remarrying. According to notes by Leos Janáček, who conducted the premiere, the “truly dramatic part” of the piece is the final section, which depicts the woman’s despair and eventual death by suicide. Under Canellakis’s baton, the “truly dramatic part” was all of it: a shifty flute melody early on foreshadowed the role the instrument would later play as the titular bird, and the music depicting the wedding of the woman and her new husband was ominously giddy.
The BSO has also only performed Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 a handful of times, most recently in 2014 at Tanglewood with soloist Leonidas Kavakos; it was my first time hearing the piece live, and Benedetti’s verve was magnetic. Though the concerto technically consists of three movements, they are usually played without a break, and the transitions between movements and sections of movements were so seamless as to be almost undetectable until they were already in the rearview. The music flowed like a river, subtly shifting moment to moment. The central cadenza is a jagged maze of quick-moving double stops, and Benedetti scaled its mountains and valleys in economical, fluid gestures. Watching her was simultaneously an exciting and soothing experience.
The audience called for an encore, which Benedetti graciously declined. We’ll just have to wait for her to come back; with any luck, that will be soon.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Saturday). 617-266-1200, www.bso.org