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Letters old and new, for violin and orchestra

Guest conductor Markus Stenz made his BSO debut. Guest conductor Markus Stenz made his BSO debut. (FILE)

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

Whether or not they have been persuaded, most BSO listeners have at least gotten to know music director James Levine's tastes in contemporary music. But when new works appear on the weeks that Levine is out of town, all bets are off. This week's conductor is Markus Stenz, the general music director of the city of Cologne, making his BSO debut. The soloist is the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, one of the more impressive fiddlers in the business. Zimmermann in turn brought along a piece recently written for him by the Australian composer Brett Dean. So there it was Thursday night in Symphony Hall: an American premiere of a work by a composer previously unplayed by the BSO.

Dean has spent much of his career as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic but in the last few years has increasingly concentrated on composing. The new piece is titled "The Lost Art of Letter Writing," a straightforward reference to the rather familiar lament that, in an age of e-mail, no one writes letters anymore. Dean chose a brief excerpt from four 19th-century letters (written by Brahms, van Gogh, Hugo Wolf, and an Australian bushranger named Ned Kelly) as inspiration for a four-movement violin concerto.

The piece is in many ways an unapologetic throwback to the 19th-century violin concerto, with a long high-flown first movement, full of rhapsodic pleading in the violin's upper registers, a meditative slow movement, a brief and breezy third movement, and a standard virtuoso dash to the finish. Dean's writing suggests a fine ear for melody and a string player's gift for dreaming up virtuoso solo violin lines, but even Zimmermann's impassioned and technically brilliant performance could not give the work much spice, color, or punch. The orchestration was at times highly imaginative, but the ensemble's overall sound seemed purposefully recessed. A lot might be solved with a good pruning, as the piece currently lacks the musical material to sustain its 35 minutes of length. That said, the epistolary conceit also comes off as pretty thin. The BSO did not even bother printing Dean's chosen excerpts from the four letters.

Not all premieres can be knockouts, but it's worth restating the perhaps obvious point that between Dean's "Lost Art" and, say, Charles Wuorinen's Eighth Symphony (premiered last season), there is a stylistic gap large enough to drive an orchestra through. One hopes BSO listeners over the course of the seasons will be given enough opportunities to explore the highly worthy middle ground between these two poles.

The rest of Stenz's program went over smoothly. Zimmermann gave a wonderfully lithe and sparkling account of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 2, and Stenz opened the night with the BSO's first ever performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 1, probably written at age 8. It's a work of more biographic than musical interest, but it was fun to hear and certainly lends some perspective to the prodigy chapter of his biography. At the evening's close came a broadly conceived, well-contoured reading of Schumann's Symphony No. 2. The orchestra overall was in fine form.

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Markus Stenz, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats tonight)

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