BSO premieres composer Bernard Rands's new concerto

The Boston Globe

By Jeremy Eichler

When one speaks of the concerto as a genre, the talk, for better or worse, often returns to metaphors of dialogue. It is in truth an overused but not unhelpful point of entry. One might observe, for instance, that if many Romantic concertos lend themselves to being heard through tropes of the individual (soloist) as pitted against the massed collective (orchestra), composers in the 20th and 21st centuries have felt more free to completely reinvent the terms of the discussion.

The composer Bernard Rands does so at once with boldness and a marvelously organic quality in his striking new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, given its premiere at Symphony Hall on Thursday night by the BSO and pianist Jonathan Biss under the baton of Robert Spano. In this concerto, neither party is subservient to the other. In fact our interlocutors are engaged in a constant empathic exchange of mood and information, audibly influencing the other’s lines as they shape their own.

The piece, a BSO commission, follows what is an outwardly familiar three-movement flight path, but the subtlety of color and the sophistication of Rands’s compositional craft, not to mention the protean interplay between soloist and ensemble, make this score feel refreshingly free of formulas.

The slow middle movement opens with a quietly vaporous line that spreads outward from the lower strings. The piano does not so much make an entrance as it does slip inside a communal reverie. The brisk finale even manages to summon the genre’s signature characteristic — virtuosic display — while turning it on its head by doubling as a study of intervals and interiorities. Supported well by Spano, Biss gave the work a first performance of technical assurance and uncommon musical understanding.

After intermission Spano led a knowing and supple account of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, a piece written in 1940 though long stretches of the music sound as if the 20th century had not yet happened. The night began sensibly with a taste of the concerto’s harmonic inheritance: that is, the world of Debussy’s “Nocturnes,” with two movements (“Nuages” and “Fetes”) dispatched with care if not always consummate atmosphere.

But the stage for the premiere was also set by an enthralling Rand-curated Prelude concert at New England Conservatory, with strong performances mostly by students and illuminating comments by the composer in conversation with the BSO’s Robert Kirzinger. As a brief introduction to (and genealogy of) a musical world view, this Prelude format would be hard to beat.