A substantial part of the audience filed into Symphony Hall last night during the pause after the first movement of Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto. The Red Sox had inspired a colossal traffic jam, and even people who had arrived on time were sharing war stories. Your correspondent made it from Cambridgeport to Symphony Hall in a mere 65 minutes.
The concerto featured the controversial young Italian pianist Gianluca Cascioli in his fourth engagement with the orchestra; the conductor was Jahja Ling, stepping in on very short notice after Daniele Gatti canceled last weekend.
To these ears, Cascioli is a genius, and genius makes its own rules; there is never a dull moment when he's around. In that respect, if in no other, he is like the late Glenn Gould (who professed to despise Mozart and made recordings to prove it).
The late Boris Goldovsky, lifelong Mozartean, used to speak of the piano concertos as being like operas; the themes are like characters who interact, suffer, have fun, and learn things about themselves. That's how Cascioli played, with lots of personality, even quirk; internal dialogue; intelligence, feeling, and more rhythmic freedom than we're used to hearing.
He also played along in the orchestral passages, emphasizing the harmony, the attack of the rhythm, and, most of all, the bass line. He plays across a wide dynamic range, but is never inaudible at one extreme, never harsh at the other.
The Adagio unfolded with poignant eloquence, and the finale made you want to laugh out loud. Richard Ranti was spiffy in a lickety-split bassoon moment and Ling proved able to ride the bucking bronco.
The conductor has not appeared with the BSO since early in his career, 19 years ago -- about the time he became resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, with which he is still affiliated.
Born into a Chinese family in Indonesia, Ling first came to notice in Jakarta (and elsewhere) as a pianist; part of his training was at Tanglewood, where he became a protege of Leonard Bernstein's.
Ling probably didn't get to conduct the Mahler First very often in Cleveland; Mahler is usually the music director's prerogative. But he certainly led a remarkable performance last night, the most beautifully played BSO performance this listener can recall.
Ling may not be a searching interpreter, but he knows the work, understands how it is put together, and has the chops to pull it off, from the tricky exposed pianissimo opening spanning the entire range of the orchestra to the resounding finale.
There was much subtlety, charm and beauty of sound in the quieter passages, and wonderful playing from solo bass (Edwin Barker), oboe (John Ferrillo) and the entire brass section.
The players never sounded as if they were stinting on the early climaxes, each new one built on the one before, and the greatest and most fulfilling of all came where it should, at the end -- often the orchestra, and the audience's ears, are exhausted long before this point. The audience greeted conductor and players with a gladitorial roar and a standing O.