Contemplative Currier concerto receives luminous premiere from Skride, Boston Symphony

May 04, 2019
By Aaron Keebaugh
Baiba Skride performed Sebastian Currier's "Aether" in its world premiere with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo; Robert Torres

Baiba Skride performed Sebastian Currier’s “Aether” in its world premiere with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo; Robert Torres

Aether was once a popular and compelling scientific concept. Nineteenth-century physicists believed it filled the space between stars, and ancient Greeks believed that it floated high above the terrestrial sphere, a rarified air breathed by the gods.

For Sebastian Currier, the word connotes more of a mysterious and poetic idea, aspects he has captured in his new violin concerto, Aether, which Baiba Skride, Andris Nelsons, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented in its world premiere Thursday night at Symphony Hall, in the BSO’s final program of the season.

Composed for and dedicated to Skride, Aether involves two contrasting musical ideas. A traditional concerto on one hand, the work segues from delicate passages to brief episodes of explosive intensity in its four movements. But stringing the movements together are sections marked by whistles, glassy harmonics, and microtonal shading—aether made manifest in music.

A co-commission from the BSO and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which will give the European premiere with Nelsons later this month, Aether is the latest score from a composer thoughtfully engaged in philosophical and cosmological ideas, following such works as Deep-Sky Objects, Parallel Worlds, and Quanta. Aether also bears the chamber refinement of Eleven Moons, Currier’s song cycle premiered by soprano Zorana Sadiq and Boston Musica Viva this past February.

At twenty-five minutes, Aether is a contemplative score, arresting and mesmerizing in effect as the music unfolds in a single long, predominantly slow episode. A departure from Currier’s other violin concerto, Time Machines, with its brash dissonances, Aether is spare and elusive, even with its wide assortment of percussion, including brake drum and anvil. Wind players are called upon to breath air through their instruments, the whoosh of sound accompanying eerie string glissandos.

The solo violin interrupts these sounds with soft double stops, chromatic runs, and occasional lyrical sweep that cuts through like a beam of light. The final movement brings fleeting moments of drive and energy, though the solo line is eventually enveloped by the clouds of pitches at the end.

Neither intense nor dramatic, Skride’s phrases complemented each orchestral line, with solo English horn, flute, and trumpet answering her wafting melodies in turn. In the brief animated passages, Skride dug in, tossing off the bristly runs with vitality.

But Currier’s music surrounded her in glistening textures, her tone bringing bright colors to the searching wind phrases and static string harmonies. Nelsons led this score with an eye towards its unusual form, his waving gestures drawing out a subtle sense of motion.

Though not a virtuosic showstopper, Aether is nonetheless an attractive and characteristically well-crafted work, receiving generous applause. Currier, invited to the stage, took several bows.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, which comprised the rest of the program, also make deft use of orchestral forces. And Nelsons, ever sensitive to the minute details of works like these, revealed all of their vivid colors, stirring melodies, and picturesque scenes.

Nelsons is recording some of Strauss’s tone poems with the BSO for possible future release. He managed to find fresh perspectives in this familiar repertoire, and Thursday’s performance of Till Eulenspiegel was clear-eyed and boisterous.

The opening French horn solo was a jocular introduction to the medieval character and the pranks he pulls. Nelsons lingered in the passage that tells of Till dressing as a priest, the music conveying an air of piety.

The conductor built the phrases to a robust conclusion where Till, represented by a squealing clarinet line, seemed to laugh all the way to the gallows. The supple string lines in the opening and closing framed the character’s deeds with a storyteller’s inviting warmth.

In Petrushka, Nelsons worked like a realist painter, drawing attention to the many solos and small ensemble passages. The opening depicted the Shrovetide Fair with apt Russian flavor and buoyancy; the ensuing waltz took on simple, music-box charm.

A tone poem as much as a ballet score, Petrushka, in Nelsons’s hands, brimmed with lively characters and scenes. Elizabeth Rowe spun a soft, free-flowing flute solo to capture Petrushka’s in his jail cell. Played by solo tuba, the dancing bear plodded and galumphed in the final scene at the fair.

The hero of this performance was principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs, who brought graceful lilt to the ballerina’s dance, full, gleaming tone to the waltz, and sardonic wit to the puppet’s theme, which pealed over dusky wind harmonies at work’s end.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200


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