Ostensibly, this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts are loving paeans to Richard Strauss, the sole composer on the program. An all-Strauss program is no surprise from music director Andris Nelsons, whose enthusiasm for the composer is well documented. Since his appointment as music director, he’s presented Strauss every season, including three of his operas.
But if last March’s season announcement had instead described the program as an homage to the career of the composer, pianist, and conductor André Previn, few eyebrows would have been raised. Strauss’s music was also one of Previn’s great loves as a conductor, and he left behind a tremendous number of recordings. For the sole subscription performance in BSO history of the final scene from “Capriccio,” Previn was on the podium. Also, one can’t leave out this week’s soloist, soprano Renée Fleming, whom Previn once called “my favorite singer.”
It comes as a somber synchronicity that Previn died two weeks ago at the age of 89. Part of a planned 90th birthday celebration for him at Tanglewood this summer was to have been the world premiere of “Penelope,” Previn and Tom Stoppard’s new work featuring Fleming. (It hasn’t been announced whether Previn had completed the score.) Shortly after his death, the BSO announced the dedication of the all-Strauss program to him. One couldn’t have planned a more suitable memorial.
From the decadent and terrifying “Salome” to the vivacious, erotic “Der Rosenkavalier” and the showbiz sendup that is “Ariadne auf Naxos,” Strauss operas tend to go big in scope, orchestration, and personality. “Capriccio” is an outlier, an opera lover’s opera. Its central character, Countess Madeleine, is courted by a poet and a composer, which becomes symbolic of the age-old question of whether music or lyrics reign supreme in the art of song.
The concert opened with a curtained string sextet instead of an overture, intended to represent a rehearsal of the composer character’s new piece; the six players gave it tender, lambent warmth. After the full orchestra and Fleming appeared onstage, the instrumental “Moonlight Music” had an excess of brashness and brightness, but the Closing Scene was the centerpiece one would expect.
Fleming has stepped into this role many times; it was one of the three she chose when she headlined the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 gala showcase. Aromas of roses and white linen frequently seem to waft through the air when Fleming opens her mouth to sing, and Thursday night this was mostly true, though a slight metallic tang intruded when she reached for some notes.
The opera’s synopsis describes Madeleine as a young widow, but Fleming’s portrayal more evoked a mature woman ready for a next act, wanting to live fully but not entirely sure how. Her Madeleine was an aristocrat, gracious and ultimately demure, with an acute sense of time’s passage. When she sang “what does your heart say,” she added a minute flutter to the quiet word “herz” (heart), as if she was listening for some small signal. Behind her, the orchestra lost color when supporting her softer musings, but the lovely tiptoe gestures of Jessica Zhou’s harp warmed the final sequence. As an encore, there was “I can smell the sea air” from Previn’s opera “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the role of Blanche DuBois having been written for Fleming.
After intermission it was Strauss at his biggest and boomiest: the tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra,” of which Previn made a fine recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Nelsons has a particular affinity for works that grapple with life’s Big Questions (see also: Mahler); and at the apotheosis of the “sunrise” that begins the tone poem, he flung his arms upward with such vigor and vehemence that it seemed his baton might go flying.
Under his direction, the orchestra enacted the work’s struggle between nature and higher ideals, represented by the harmonically distant but tonically adjacent keys of C and B. Thomas Rolfs’s trumpet rang out the call of the wild, and later in the work first associate concertmaster Tamara Smirnova reeled off the Viennese waltz melody with a distinct lurch, as if drunk on sensation or revelation.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, March 14. Repeats March 16, 8 p.m. 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.