The evening opened with just 12 musicians onstage for Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, a tasty sampling of the changes underway in post-World War I Europe, when classicism was giving way to the dissonance of the 20th century. Hindemith captured both the spirit and the sound of that era in this short, playful mix of scampering strings, floating woodwinds, and lively percussion.
After a sharp opening blast, Conductor Franz Welser-Möst modulated the piece nicely, balancing precision strings with cascading piano lines and knocks and jabs from the vibes and drums. Most impressive was the organic sound he created in a work that seems on the verge of flying off in different directions at any moment. At times, his approach was perhaps a bit too restrained. But overall it was an intelligent and tasteful treatment, with an ear attuned to the occasional flashes of humor, particularly the percussive flourish in the final bars.
Though it was written 24 years later by a composer noted for inciting outrage, Strauss’s oboe concerto sounds almost conventional by modern standards — expect for the solo part, which makes severe demands on the player. The oboe comes in immediately and plays throughout nearly the entire piece, often in long passages that call for perfect breath control and seemingly impossible stamina.
Rosenwein made it look easy, establishing a smooth style and rich tone that he maintained as he reeled off long, complicated runs like flowing water. His approach may have been too polished for Strauss, who typically gets a sharper, even harsher interpretation. But there was no arguing with his fluency, and the sheer skill he displayed. Welser-Möst gave him fine support with warm strings and bright colors in the horns and woodwinds. And his fellow players gave Rosenwein the ultimate compliment, joining the audience in the enthusiastic applause he received.
The gloves came off, so to speak, for Berlioz’s manic first symphony, which gave Welser-Möst an opportunity to employ the full range and power of the orchestra. The first movement belonged to the strings, which started lush and full, then developed in increasingly energetic layers, with dark undercurrents in the cellos and bass swirling beneath the high peaks of passion in the violins.
There were echoes of Vienna in the waltz-dominated second movement — no surprise with Welser-Möst at the podium, though the frenzied notes of yearning that occasionally cut in sounded distinctly modern. The third movement, a pastoral scene that moves from repose to melancholy to the ominous rumble of distant thunder, was heavenly, a brilliant blend of silken strings and sensitive cornet solos. Welser-Möst was particularly adept at drawing out the inner turmoil beneath the melodies, and giving the music a majestic sweep.
The fourth and fifth movements were an explosion of aural fireworks. While the power of the full orchestra was riveting, what really stood out was the nuances Welser-Möst developed amid the clamor — carefully crafted strings, precise articulation from the drums, and vivid colors and tones in the horns. It’s easy to get swept up in the concluding maelstrom of the “Witches’ Sabbath,” as this critic was. But what lingers is the control of the material that Welser-Möst showed, and the tight, crisp sound that he maintained right up to the rousing finale, which brought the audience to its feet.
The sprinkling of empty seats throughout the hall suggested that this will not be one of the orchestra’s more popular programs this season. But for students of 20th-century music, it was an edifying evening of both programming and playing. For more casual fans, it was also a delightful indulgence in one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire, and a great start on the scary season.