A large and enthusiastic crowd brought a festive air to the opening program of the Boston Philharmonic’s 44th season on Wednesday evening in Symphony Hall. Bracketing the presence of a few masks on stage and in the crowd, the night had the feeling of old times.
Over the years, the Philharmonic, under the direction of its founding conductor Benjamin Zander, has built up an admirable tradition of inviting compelling soloists with local ties to appear with the orchestra. And so it was on Wednesday, when Zander and the ensemble featured the eloquent pianist Jonathan Biss as soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Biss grew up in a musical family, and both of his parents — Miriam Fried and Paul Biss — are on the faculty of New England Conservatory. But in recent years, Boston has not featured prominently on Biss’s performance schedule, so this was a welcome occasion — and all the more so because it involved the music of Beethoven.
Over the last decade, this particular composer has become a lodestar for Biss, as he has not only performed and recorded but also taught and written about Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos. On Wednesday night, from the dreamy, lost-in-thought opening bars of the Fourth Concerto onward, we were clearly in the hands of an interpreter who has considered not just how to play this music effectively but what it means and why you should care. Particularly notable was the imaginative breadth of Biss’s sonic palette, his way of deploying color not merely as a decorative effect but as a narrative and expressive device within the work’s classical frame. (This was also striking in Biss’s revelatory performance of Schubert’s B-flat Major Sonata on this same stage Sunday afternoon, as part of the Terezin Music Foundation gala.)
For Wednesday’s Beethoven, Zander and the orchestra proved sensitive partners. Especially satisfying was the give-and-take between soloist and ensemble in the dramatic, Orpheus-and-the-furies Andante movement, and the lightness and Mozartean grace with which Biss navigated the Rondo finale.
After intermission came Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. This big-boned Romantic work is now a staple of the repertoire, but it has had, like much of Rachmaninoff’s music, its ups and downs in critical reception. “It is Tchaikovsky without the hysteria, perhaps, but also without the energy,” wrote the critic Paul Rosenfeld roughly a century ago, in words that can still feel true of many performances. Fortunately not this one. Zander conceives of this work as an organic unity, and he kept the tempos flowing, the phrasing articulate, and the music’s structure powerfully clear. For its part, the orchestra — a mix of professionals, students, and devoted amateurs — sounded in particularly strong form.
Certain brass passages rang out with an organ-like sense of ensemble unity, and the strings — save the occasional rough patch, as in the hard-driving fugue of the second movement — played with warmth, palpable investment, and an appealingly dark-hued sound. Among the accomplished woodwind principals, clarinetist Rane Moore received — and deserved — the first bow at the end of the night. Her dusky-toned solos had poise and musicality in equal measure.
All told it was an auspicious opening to the orchestra’s new season, which continues on Nov. 12 with Brahms’s Second Symphony and the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Hayoung Choi, winner of this year’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth competition, to appear as soloist.