The National Symphony Orchestra played a work Thursday night that took a pop-music approach to classical composition.
Not because Steven Mackey’s “Beautiful Passing” — a violin concerto written for Leila Josefowicz in 2008 and performed by her with the orchestra and conductor Hannu Lintu on Thursday — is explicitly pop in its approach. Indeed, for all its orchestral Sturm und Drang, its compositional material is almost demure. And not because Mackey, 55, is also known as an electric-guitar player.
It’s simply that the piece was explicitly about something nonmusical: Its subject is the death of the composer’s mother, and the work includes passages meant to evoke her raling final breaths, and a dance of denial from the composer.
That kind of relevance is more often the province of singer-songwriters than composers of abstract music, and it gave the intense concerto a kind of immediacy that it might not have gained on musical grounds alone — once you know it’s about someone’s death, it naturally acquires a particular patina of emotion.
That is not a dis on this brooding, detailed concerto, in which the radiant Josefowicz time and again presented a small-scale intimacy so intense that it pulled the energy of the whole orchestra into her orbit. But the piece did present a narrative that was, in compositional terms, somewhat naive: a contemporary take on the theme of the individual against the masses. The orchestra was agitated and harsh but always mellifluously so, and the solo line strove and strove and strove to find its way through the tangles of sound and emotion; at the center of the piece, the orchestra falls silent and the soloist embarks on a long and vulnerable cadenza.
The concerto was part of a generally intense, well-balanced and melodramatic program of what one might term conservative mavericks: musicians who go their own way but in a manner more calculated to appeal to audiences than to frighten them. It was flanked by the Sibelius Fifth, which brooded and crackled like black lightning under Lintu’s sometimes crabbed gestures, and five arrangements of Debussy Preludes for orchestra by the British composer Colin Matthews. They represented the program’s link between the early 20th century and the early 21st, given, like Mackey’s work, their NSO premieres.
“Arrangements” is perhaps too pale a word for what amounted to fundamental reconceptions of these solo piano works, transformed to spread across the full breadth of the orchestra, sometimes becoming unrecognizable in the process. Puck’s dance was downright stately when limned by autumnal woodwinds with kisses of brass and bells. The pieces are exquisitely rich, from the dark bass wind notes of “Feux d’Artifice” to the solo string quartet trading lines in “Bruyeres,” but, like many rich things, grew somewhat heavy when repeated. One aspect of the preludes that they didn’t entirely capture was the mercurial variety; there was a sense of seriousness about them that bordered on the ponderous by the time the final “Cathedrale Engloutie” had measured out its solemn and increasingly predictable peals of bells (yes, more bells).
These days, Lintu, 44, is one on a long list of rising Finnish conductors who have a lot of talent and energy. At his worst, he inflicted the beat on the orchestra, resulting in the kind of heaviness that came to dominate the Debussy/Matthews arrangements or the marked stridency of the winds early on in the Sibelius. At his best — in much of the Sibelius — he brought the music alive so that its silences were as taut as slicing wire. The pianissimo section in the first movement was so quiet, it was like listening in on someone else’s dream, and the climaxes were exhilarating without becoming bombastic.
The audience burst into a smattering of almost involuntary applause at the end of the first movement, but Lintu held the whole house pin-drop silent for the final chords of the last movement. It was serious music but freed from its own import to become a deep delight.