Forty years ago Christoph von Dohnanyi conducted the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze's opera ''The Bassarids" at the Salzburg Festival, and the work has been with him ever since. He led famous concert performances when he was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and last September conducted the first performance of the orchestral work Henze recently drew from the opera, ''Adagio, Fugue, and Maenads' Dance." This weekend at the Boston Symphony he is leading the American premiere in honor of the composer's upcoming 80th birthday (July 1).
Perhaps Henze's hope was to create an orchestral piece that would enter the repertoire more rapidly and extensively than a huge, complex opera, the way Hindemith did with his ''Mathis der Maler," which exists both as a popular symphonic score and a rarely-performed stage work. He may have succeeded, for the ''Adagio, Fugue, and Maenads' Dance" is a glittering, haunting half-hour of music which makes a powerful effect even if you don't know the daunting allegorical libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman about the mind versus the senses.
Like Alban Berg in ''Wozzeck," Henze in ''The Bassarids" makes abstract musical forms like the fugue vividly dramatic and theatrical; this is narrative music. The mood is full of Mahlerian angst and regret, interrupted by savage Stravinskian rites. The orchestral writing is tremendous -- 8 percussionists had their hands full, and there are poignant solos for saxophone, cello, and bassoon, expressively played by Ken Radnofsky, Jules Eskin and Richard Ranti, respectively. The audience responded with considerable enthusiasm, repeatedly calling Dohnanyi back to the stage.
The program opened with a slow, hypnotic, dreamlike performance of Schubert's ''Unfinished" Symphony, meticulously detailed and exceedingly beautiful, if not exactly full of life's surprises.
The essential element of spontaneity, so conspicuously missing from the Schubert, was notably present in the Brahms Violin Concerto, which was superbly played by Frank Peter Zimmermann. Not a stalker like Gil Shaham a few weeks ago, Zimmermann is nevertheless a highly physical, foot-stomping performer who even occasionally levitates. He plays with commanding technique, insight, fire, and poetry (this last quality matched by oboist John Ferrillo in the famous opening melody of the slow movement). He also brought an unexpected element of playful fun into the finale, and even the serious maestro seemed to be enjoying himself to the hilt.
The evening ended with a graceful BSO tradition. In the absence of the music director, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe brought this season's retirees -- Charles Schlueter, principal trumpet since 1981, and Fenwick Smith, second flute since 1978 -- forward for solo bows. The audience applauded these familiar figures for a collective 53 years of service to the orchestra and contributions to the musical life of the region that will continue.