The classical music world loves to cheer its composers on their centenaries but there is almost never anyone there to take a bow.
Last night was easily the best Boston Symphony Orchestra concert of the season, and it was the grand exception to the centenary rule. The composer Elliott Carter, just days shy of his 100th birthday, stood beaming on the stage as the crowd cheered.
They were applauding the world premiere of Carter's new work for piano and orchestra - "Interventions" - but they were, on a more basic level, applauding the man himself, who has persisted decade after decade in writing music as freshly imaginative as it is fiercely modern, often with an energy and wit unmatched by composers half his age.
"Interventions," a BSO co-commission for piano and orchestra, was written for James Levine and Daniel Barenboim. As you might expect in a Carter work, the traditional model of the Romantic piano concerto is tossed out the window in favor of something more fractured and, quite purposefully, more evenhanded in the interplay between soloist and orchestra.
Cast in one movement roughly 15 minutes long, the music is full of surprisingly lyrical string writing - by Carter's standards - with frequent interruptions from the piano, which then holds court with pointy, eruptive figuration or big, iridescent chords. Two independent trios help negotiate between orchestra and soloist. The final flourish is uncharacteristically brash - and life-affirming. Barenboim, Levine, and the BSO gave it a crackling first performance.
In a highly unusual, yet somehow perfectly fitting gesture, Levine and Barenboim opened the program with Schubert's sublime F minor Fantasy for piano four-hands. The night would end with a roof-rattling rendition of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," but it began with this gentle invitation to listen. The playing was fluid and notable for its quiet inner glow.
Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto might almost seem filler on such a program, but it was uncommonly effective, with Barenboim's eloquent account of the solo line partnered by Levine's impassioned work with the orchestra.
"The Rite of Spring" was both highly articulate and viscerally powerful, and the orchestra sounded brilliant, from Richard Svoboda's bewitching account of the opening bassoon solo onward. You'd think Carter might have ducked out after his premiere, but he stayed throughout this marathon program. Hearing Stravinsky's stunningly modern work was, for him as a young man in the 1920s, the beginning of it all.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.