The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “Opening Night at Symphony” presented listeners with an intriguing interpretive puzzle. Works by Beethoven (the “Consecration of the House” overture) and Mozart (Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488) — both part of the first BSO subscription series, which began on Thursday — were on the first half of Saturday’s program; after intermission came music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, with Carlos Simon’s “Four Black American Dances” as the closer.
What was the BSO trying to say with this program? Was it a microcosm of its history? (The Beethoven opened the BSO’s inaugural season; the Simon, a BSO commission, was premiered last February.) Was it meant to signify the orchestra’s dedication to both the pillars of the repertoire and the goal of diversifying it in inventive ways?
Or maybe it was just a marriage of convenience: The Beethoven and Mozart were already in rotation, and virtually all the music on the second half had been performed by the BSO within the past 18 months.
Whatever the intention, perhaps the most important question was how well it worked in practice. Saturday’s concert offered a mixed answer: It was very much a program of two halves, yet it offered any number of highly enjoyable moments. It certainly got off to a rousing start with the Beethoven, a go-to work for the orchestra on ceremonial occasions. Music director Andris Nelsons and the orchestra produced an expansive sound in this fanfare-heavy work, though from where I sat, some stretches seemed merely loud, trumpets and timpani covering almost everything else.
The Mozart, by contrast, featured playing of sensitivity and nuance, the strings singing with an old-world glow to accompany pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. His playing in this hallowed piece was oddly capricious: Phrases of delicacy and poise were followed by passages almost devoid of such refinement. He was at his best, thankfully, in the slow movement, an outpouring of despair with few parallels in Mozart’s oeuvre. Here Buchbinder and Nelsons, a scrupulous accompanist, achieved great poignancy simply by letting this sorrowful music speak for itself.
Pianist Aaron Diehl and his trio joined the BSO for Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’,” for piano and orchestra, which began the second half. Inspired by a book on Black lives in Harlem in the 1920s and ‘30s, the piece is an ecstatically colored rhapsody that ranges in style from late Romanticism to gospel to swing. Diehl was the ideal soloist, showing complete command of the sparkling, virtuoso piano part. As a sort of encore, he and Buchbinder returned to the stage to play “Tonk,” a high-flying four-hand showpiece by Ellington and Strayhorn. It may not have been the last word on the work’s stride-piano roots, but everyone seemed to enjoy it — not least the two pianists.
Simon’s piece left the deepest impression of the evening. Drawn from the deep tradition of dance in African American culture, the four movements (“Ring Shout,” Waltz,” “Tap!,” and “Holy Dance”) are dynamic, rhythmically buoyant, and ingeniously built. The orchestration dazzled, the sound seeming to burst off the stage and fill the hall. Nelsons and the musicians seemed engaged in a way not always evident during the evening.
“Four Black American Dances” was also notable for being a commission that the BSO not only premiered but returned to at Tanglewood and brought on its recent European tour. Its presence on a gala evening may be due to the music’s infectious and approachable character. But I hope it’s also a sign that the orchestra intends to keep its worthy new music strongly in its rotation. That’s the kind of hopeful augury appropriate for a festive opening night.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Saturday
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com.