The madcap Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky is back this week with another program of music that nobody knows, by composers whom everybody likes. This may have accounted for the sprinkling of empty seats in Symphony Hall, but Rozhdestvensky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra showed everyone who showed up a good time.
All of the program was interesting and two of the pieces were gems, the Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra by Jean Sibelius and excerpts from "Hypothetically Murdered" by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Sibelius's pieces are miniature masterpieces by a composer in full flower; they were written in 1917 when Sibelius was 52. Each is a brief, elegant evocation of a dance, and each stops without flourish when it is finished. The most bewitching were the third and the fifth. The third begins with birdcalls and bird flight that morph into a charming formal dance. The fifth is a delicious mazurka, one stanza twinkling in the highest register of the violin. The performance was a family affair, because the soloist was the conductor's son, Alexander Rozhdestvensky, who offered polished and witty playing of tonal allure.
The Shostakovich suite is the work of a brilliant, cheeky 25-year-old, incidental music written for a circus revue, complete with deft musical juggling, clownish pratfalls and tunes so irresistible it's no wonder the composer recycled them in later works after politics closed the circus down.
Surviving only in piano score, the suite has been dazzlingly reorchestrated by Gerard McBurney who added saxophones, an accordion, and wah-wah plunger mutes to the mix. All the usual BSO superstars shone; others we don't get to salute as often got to strut their stuff, including piccolo Linda Toote, trumpeters Thomas Rolfs and Benjamin Wright, trombonist Norman Bolter, and tubist Mike Roylance. Katherine V. Matasy was the captivating accordionist and you could see Rozhdestvnsky exclaim "Wow!" when he gave her a solo bow.
Shostakovich's "Seven Adaptations of Finnish Folk Songs" are lively, tuneful and charming, and they were delivered with lots of personality by smooth-toned tenor Carl Halvorson and by the vivacious thrush-voiced soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who sang Gilda in the Boston Lyric Opera's production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" earlier this season.
Prokofiev's "American Overture" was written in France for performance in this country, but the brassy brashness and the contrasting lyricism flow from the composer's own personality. The "Overture No. 2 on Three Greek Themes" by the 17-year-old Alexander Glazunov is a considerable achievement for a teenager, but he did stretch 10 minutes of ideas over 20 minutes of music.
The genial Rozhestvensky visibly took pleasure in all of this music, and in sharing it with the audience. And when did anyone last see members of the BSO grinning along with the music?
(Boston Symphony Orchestra; Gennady Rozhdestvensky, guest conductor; At Symphony Hall, last night (repeats tonight, tomorrow and Tuesday).