BOSTON — Plato wanted to ban all poets; they stirred emotions too deeply, he argued. We might ban musicians as well. When great artists express music with empathy, love, and uncommon technique, Plato seems about right.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under music director Andris Nelsons with Yo-Yo Ma onstage the weekend of Oct. 12–15, performed the Shostakovich cello concertos: the defyingly virtuosic first, and the second, a deeply ironic lament. Both were composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, and they were premiered, respectively, in 1959 and 1966.
Nelsons and Ma each attempted emotional remarks from the stage beforehand, comparing present-day turmoil with the Cold War anxiety of the composer’s era. The performances, heard on Oct. 12 and Oct. 14, were rivetingly dark.
These concerts, like most, had been planned for years. Unanticipated was the war in Gaza, which has roiled communities around the world, and which created a flash mob of emotion during the first performance. Tensions were high, and both soloist and conductor tried to express what it meant to be recalling old terrors in this harrowing new context. Their words haltingly and incompletely expressed their ideas. At a second performance, both read deliberately from notes, trying to steady their feelings.
The program began with the Second concerto. The BSO originally performed it on Aug. 10, 1975, with Rostropovich as soloist and Seiji Ozawa on the podium. Shostakovich had died the previous day.
The Second is a soloist’s concerto from the beginning, with a melancholy opening phrase. The orchestra appears in unusual pairings: first the soloist and bass drum, then successively with the tambourine, xylophone, and whip.
The last two movements are played together, beginning with a scherzo that mimics a street vendor’s song, “Buy Our Pretzels.” The vernacular tune never leaves, contorted into hideous shapes by the soloist and by nearly every section of the orchestra as well. The unusual instrumental pairings persist. At the conclusion, the soloist articulates an extended drone, with wood blocks, whips, snare, and xylophone alternating percussive patter in the background.
There were tears onstage opening night — the soloist and members of the orchestra. While there was no direct connection between Shostakovich’s Cold War–era struggles and the war on Gaza’s streets, musically, they seemed as one.
These performances will be recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, a continuation of the BSO’s successful cycle of Shostakovich’s orchestral works. A fifth CD set, released this month, includes the Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 12, and 13. Three previous releases have garnered Grammy Awards. The piano concertos will be recorded with Yuja Wang and the violin concertos with Baiba Skride.
Born in Riga, Latvia — a Soviet republic in 1978 — Nelsons has spoken of a lifetime of reverence for Shostakovich and his music. This DG/BSO recording project has been perfectly suited to his taste and training.
The program concluded with the First concerto, which also prominently featured BSO principal horn Richard Sebring. The incredible virtuosity of the piece was on display in both performances, but the hyped emotional experience of the first performance was impossible to replicate.
The soloist begins the First with a stylish, recurring four-note motive. A wicked cadenza takes up the entire third movement. The drama, intensified up to the closing cadence — a half-dozen confident strokes in the timpani — matched the virtuosity on display.
The program also included Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi’s one-movement Zhiân, itself a commemoration of the 2022 death in Iran of Mahsa Amini while she was in the custody of the morality police. Habibi is one of too many composers who have grown up without basic musical tools — he learned by mimicking television tunes on a keyboard — but he has overcome the deficit, developing his own voice. Zhiân seemed direct, almost effusive, simply conceived, and certainly more uplifting than commemorative.
Now marking his 10th anniversary with the BSO, Nelsons has mellowed physically. Compared to the often-noted ice-cream scoop gymnastics of his early years, the hard-working conductor seems almost reserved now. In Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, Le Philosophe, which opened the program, Nelsons took whole phrases off, simply admiring his sections with trust.
Ma’s grace has always extended to his stagemates. As an encore, he engaged the entire cello section in an arrangement by Gautier Capuçon of the Prelude to Shostakovich’s gentle Five Pieces. He sat alone in a back desk and let principal Blaise Déjardin lead the section and the audience to a quieter place.