Violinist Gilles Apap must seem an irresistible prospect for those conductors - such as the Boston Philharmonic's Benjamin Zander - who like to project a sense of adventure. Apap has gained a reputation and a cult following on the basis of a certain genre agnosticism, embracing both classical music and numerous regional folk traditions with bohemian relish.
Headlining the Boston Philharmonic's concerts last week, Apap brought his idiosyncratic musical personality to bear on two rather divergent composers - J.S. Bach and Alban Berg - and the results were absorbing, if not always completely successful.
Apap and Boston Philharmonic principal oboist Peggy Pearson joined for Bach's Concerto in C minor, BWV 1060 (a reconstruction from Bach's later version for two violins). Apap adopted a slightly more rustic accent than the average virtuoso: shorter bow strokes, a pleasantly abraded attack.
Paired with Pearson's round, soft-edged sound, it shifted the focus inward, particularly in the middle Adagio, the singing line sustained not by long, seamless phrases, but subtle, exploratory variations in articulation. With Zander and a reduced string orchestra offering light, elegant accompaniment, the impression was gentle, almost self-effacing, but quietly vital.
Berg's 1935 Violin Concerto, a teeming meditation on mortality, was interesting, but less convincing as a whole. Using a similar, often unusually lean tone, Apap found emotional novelty within Berg's lyrical bequest, at times bringing a halting reticence to the music's eulogistic rhetoric, and making the concerto's folk-music echoes more explicit and less stylized. But the reading often felt cool and hard-edged, with contrasts of volume and speed diminished into an equivocal repose. The apotheosis reached a soulful pitch, with Apap's tone in full Romantic bloom, but the lack of previous volatility made it more episodic than cathartic.
Apap then charmed the crowd with encores in a more vernacular vein, including an improvisation on the second Bourrée from Bach's fourth cello suite that ended up a fiddler's travelogue, with stops in Ireland, Appalachia, and Nashville.
After intermission, Apap slipped into the first violin section to join in a big-boned reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. Zander and the orchestra were in their element, delivering the sort of performance they do best: full of dash and high-relief details, grand, dramatic, usually extroverted, and occasionally over the top.
It suited the "Eroica," symphonic proof not only that Beethoven was equal parts poet and ham actor, but also that neither category monopolizes the possibility of genius.