Symphony Hall was far from full for the opening concert of this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra series, but it was a big night anyway, especially for Michael Gandolfi.
Over the years, this Boston composer who teaches at New England Conservatory has produced a series of ingenious, impertinent, engaging, and truth-telling pieces. Last summer he took a great step forward with the triumphant Tanglewood premiere of a 20-minute orchestral work called ''Impressions From 'The Garden of Cosmic Speculation' "; interest in the piece ran so high that the Boston Symphony Orchestra committed itself to the second performance even before it was completed.
The composer's point of departure was a book by the architect Charles Jencks about a private 30-acre garden he and his wife have worked on in Scotland since 1988. The garden is both a summary of knowledge, an experiment, and a provocation to further thought. It was built not only according to the obvious laws of nature -- soil, climate, etc. -- but also to underlying or overarching laws, including recent scientific discoveries and theories about the cosmos. Both the scientific speculations of the garden and its certainties, not to mention its personal quirks, appealed to Gandolfi, who wound up producing a 4-movement piece that is a musical response to several of its features.
The music, lightly tweaked since last summer, is both accessible and elusive, and Gandolfi has recovered an important principle that vanished from a lot of symphonic music after Brahms -- perfect seriousness is entirely compatible with a sense of humor, and Gandolfi's humor is cosmic.
The first movement is full of mystery and dawning expectation. The second, ''Soliton Waves," demonstrates how waves of sound can interact and even change direction while remaining themselves. The third movement is meditative, and the finale is a syncopated romp.
The piece is full of energy, fun, and allusions to the musical past, but is clearly of our time. Repetitive, minimalist figures may motor the music, but the vigor of the ideas and the allure of the harmonies are something a lot more. The work ends quietly, with a shimmer, as if we have almost reached the top of a hill, and all we can see is a limitless horizon of unforeseen possibility.
Guest conductor David Zinman is one of America's major musicians, and he led a nimble-footed, thoughtful, and delightful performance. Even before the composer appeared onstage, younger members of the audience were responding with whoops of approval.
This was followed by Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, nature music of another kind. Richard Goode was a surprising but successful choice as soloist. Playing from the score, he offered his characteristic probity and imagination. He isn't a great colorist, but compensated with clarity, proportion, attention to detail, and rhythmic piquancy.
The concert ended with a BSO warhorse, Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's ''Pictures at an Exhibition." Zinman let brilliance and volume take care of themselves in a performance concentrated on observation, contrast and character, and he gave the players time and space to express themselves -- among them Thomas Martin, mysterious in the saxophone solo in ''The Old Castle," and tubist Mike Roylance, easily soaring aloft in ''The Oxcart." Charles Schlueter led off the opening Promenade with a demonstration of old-style trumpet legato, and Zinman's control of pace and structure meant that the climactic ''The Great Gate of Kiev" arrived with grandeur, not in a brazen display of vulgarity.