Since Christmas the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been on a roll. One way an orchestra declares its greatness is through accumulated work with a music director. Circumstances have denied us that experience for the last couple of seasons.
But another way is how an orchestra responds to the demands of widely differing music led by guest conductors of widely contrasting personalities.
The last weeks have brought us Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, music director-designate James Levine, Antonio Pappano, and now Christoph von Dohnanyi -- an impressive lineup of conductors, repertory, and performances.
As usual, Dohnanyi balanced a familiar masterwork of the past, Brahms's Fourth Symphony, with something recent, "Stele" by Gyorgy Kurtag. The Hungarian composer turns 78 next month; he's three years younger than his compatriot Gyorgy Ligeti. For most of his career he concentrated on vocal music and chamber works which have been regularly heard at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music and at Monadnock music. "Stele" (1994) was his first piece for full orchestra, written for the Berlin Philharmonic and introduced to New England by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in 1995.
It's a memorial piece -- "Stele," a Greek word, means an inscribed stone or slab or tablet. The work calls for huge forces, but Kurtag employs them for color rather than for volume. The piece is in three striking movements. The first begins like melted Beethoven, and there's a solemn chorale. The second waves huge, overlapping, undulating sheets of lamenting sound into the air; the third presents 5 repeated notes as a kind of painful throb over sustained chords. A door opens onto the spiritual world in this music, and Dohnanyi and the orchestra led us through.
The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu was soloist in the Schumann Concerto. Lupu has built a major international career by doing things his way. He doesn't welcome publicity, let alone seek it, and he plays a restricted repertory of serious music in a serious way. He sits quietly in a straight-backed chair and does his job without any element of showmanship.
And his interpretations of the pieces he does choose to play owe little to convention. He played the Schumann last night as chamber music, often turning away from the piano to face the orchestra; often he deliberately let the piano part recede into the textures of the orchestra. Even in the big first-movement cadenza, his way was to muse upon it rather than to proclaim it.
Lupu has played with greater definition and even accuracy on other occasions, and some of his work sounded merely mannered. One wanted him to stop fussing around and play out; this music wants to sing. But some of the performance was enthralling -- he chose a playful tempo for the brief intermezzo -- and the finale did begin to sparkle.
Dohnanyi and the orchestra were vigilant, and they needed to be, but the conductor seemed to be enjoying himself.
The Brahms Symphony had the characteristic Dohnanyi virtues of clarity, balance, precision and force, balanced by a breathing, human quality that was learned the hard way through years in the pits of opera houses.
The orchestra played splendidly and applauded the conductor along with the audience at the end; to general foot-stomping approval, Dohnanyi gave a solo bow to flutist Elizabeth Ostling for her heartfelt solo in the finale.
(Boston Symphony Orchestra; Christoph von Dohnanyi, guest conductor; At Symphony Hall, last night; Repeats tonight and tomorrow night.)