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Colors of India cascade from violin, tabla, and Philharmonic

Joanna Kurkowicz commissioned an Indian-influenced concerto. Joanna Kurkowicz commissioned an Indian-influenced concerto.

The Boston Philharmonic and conductor Benjamin Zander opened their season this weekend with a mixed bag: a comparative rarity, a venerable warhorse, and a novelty that stole the show from both.

Alberto Ginastera's eloquent 1953 "Variaciones concertantes" were given their second Boston hearing in less than a year, the Pro Arte Orchestra having essayed the work last spring. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer provided an electric start with a mercurial, searing delineation of the opening theme, but the following 11 variations ran into trouble. Ginastera shades open, diatonic sonorities with passing chromaticism that here often suffered from fuzzy intonation. Of the various highlighted solo instruments, only Kevin Owen's French horn matched Popper-Keizer's intensity and flair. The driving finale, in Ginastera's gleaming South American folk style, was bright but flat-footed; the few spots where Zander worked his baton with more efficiency than vigor evinced a swing that was lacking elsewhere.

The new piece, an American premiere, was Shirish Korde's "Svara-Yantra," and a terrific piece it is. In this Indian-influenced concerto for violin, tabla (Indian tuned drums), and orchestra, East and West don't meet halfway: the traditional symphony is instead dropped into the middle of the subcontinent, exploding with color. The Philharmonic's usual concertmistress, Joanna Kurkowicz, commissioned the work from Korde, a native of India who teaches at Holy Cross; Kurkowicz carried the opening movement, spinning out declamatory arabesques, idiomatically sliding and bending tones over a drone that coursed through the orchestra with impressionistic vibrancy.

The superb tabla player Samir Chatterjee joined the conversation in the second movement, a pulsing tribute to the legendary Indian violinist L. Subramaniam, and the music kicked into high gear, Kurkowicz's scurrying violin riding Chatterjee's intricate drumming over Technicolor splashes from the orchestra. Chatterjee's solo legerdemain foreshadowed a violin cadenza, improvised by Kurkowicz in a slightly disparate Romantic style; an extended give-and-take between the two enthused soloists anchored the finale, framed by a torrential, exuberant tune taken up by the entire band, propelled by Chatterjee's rhythmic authority and Kurkowicz's energy.

The second half was Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," in the familiar orchestration by Maurice Ravel. Zander conducted a performance of chiaroscuro heft, weighty and somber in all the right places, but also a few of the wrong places, too: the more quicksilver movements never quite took the necessary demonic flight. But Baba-Yaga, the old witch, was in especially fine form, a sonorous scare in advance of Halloween.

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