The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 134th season on Thursday with a kind of preview in advance of the sold-out gala concert next Saturday that will mark Andris Nelsons’s debut as the orchestra’s new music director. BSO associate conductor Marcelo Lehninger was on the podium for an oddly sorted trio of works: Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, a piece Mozart may not have actually written; Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas brasileiras” No. 5, which was getting its BSO premiere; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which the BSO has performed under no fewer than 36 different conductors. The first half of the program was pleasingly intimate, the second a mighty outburst.
The Sinfonia Concertante was unknown in Mozart’s lifetime; it didn’t turn up till the mid-19th century, and the original manuscript, if there was one, is lost. You can certainly hear elements of Mozart in it: The quartet of solo instruments converse like the quartet of lovers in “Cosí fan tutte”; the oboe’s sinuous slow melodies anticipate the “Gran Partita” Adagio that “Amadeus” made famous; and the theme of the finale is a simple jaunty tune that Papageno might have whistled.
Its appearance here paid tribute to four superb BSO soloists — oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, horn player James Sommerville, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda — and they in turn paid tribute to the piece by making it sound like Mozart, especially in the tender serenade of the Adagio. Lehninger’s accompaniment was gracious in tempo, dramatic in affect, and full bodied in texture — occasionally, with 40 strings, too full-bodied.
Lehninger’s programming of his fellow Brazilian’s “Momoprecoce” in 2012 marked the first time the BSO had played Villa-Lobos since 1956. More would be welcome. “Bachianas brasileiras” No. 5, for soprano and an orchestra of at least eight of the composer’s beloved cellos, is in two parts: an “Aria” with a recitative-like poem by Ruth Valadares Corrêa, and a “Dança” to text by Manoel Bandeira.
Nicole Cabell gave a rich weight to the wordless opening of the “Aria,” and both she and the cellos — some bowed, some plucked — swung to the Brazilian rhythms of the “Dança,” in which Bandeira asks birds and ducklings to sing to his beloved for him. I do wish Bandeira’s words had emerged more clearly.
The challenge of Beethoven’s Fifth is to strip away the “classic” varnish that’s accumulated over the past two centuries and restore the original revolutionary fervor. Leading a full modern orchestra with first and second violins grouped (rather than seated antiphonally), Lehninger made no effort to deliver a historically “authentic” performance — but it was authentic all the same.
The first movement had thunder and lightning, but also dynamic contrast, with lean strings, energetic timpani from Timothy Genis, and, at measure 268, a poignant one-bar oboe solo from Keisuke Wakao. The slow movement was by turns majestic and romantic; the scherzo, spooky at first, turned raw-boned and boisterous. The cataclysmic finale never drowned out Cynthia Meyers’s spunky piccolo. Revolution was in the air. Beethoven, I think, would have been proud.