For some people, art is a kind of riddle, to which they don’t always know the answers. This view of art was certainly supported by Tobias Picker’s seductive yet enigmatic orchestral suite “Opera without Words, for Orchestra,” which the National Symphony Orchestra commissioned and gave its world premiere, under Christoph Eschenbach, on Thursday night.
“Opera without Words” is just what it says it is: that is, Picker actually sat down with a librettist, the novelist Irene Dische, and drew up a libretto, which he set, using instruments as voices, and then set aside. In a program note, the composer even said the piece could theoretically, with readjustments, be performed as an opera. Furthermore, each of the five scenes — called “The Beloved,” “The Minstrel,” “The Idol,” “The Gladiator,” and “The Farewell” — is inspired by someone the composer knows, but, he says, he will never tell who the characters are.
We are, therefore, in what one might term “terra incognito.” There are plenty of works in the canon that are obscure or have suppressed programs — from Mahler’s first symphony to Elgar’s “Enigma” variations — but the deliberate obfuscation in this one comes off as excess baggage, particularly since it often actually leads to deliberately unidiomatic instrumental writing — limiting the piano, for instance, to a single, song-like line. You can hear that a lot of story is going on, with solos and duets and conversations (the viola is the protagonist, nobly played here by Daniel Foster), but you are kept at bay, behind a fence, feeling you don’t actually know what’s happening. It’s an interesting conceit, since imagined words in such a context can take on an aura of profundity the real words lack. I liked my own imaginings of what might be going on, the notions of romance and power the music awakened; but that meant I also didn’t really want to get any closer.
The new piece led off an unusually packed program, with three substantial works and a little bonbon at the end. After the Picker, Jean-Yves Thibaudet took the stage for a fiery account of Liszt’s second piano concerto, which he played with a commendable ferocity, tearing into the keyboard when not drawing from it gentler sprays of sound, or, at the start of the Allegro moderato, surrounding David Hardy’s warm solo cello line with a glittering cave of notes.
There followed a warm and generally robust account of Brahms’s third symphony. Eschenbach is never a particularly concise symphonic conductor, and his intense delvings into a score can lead to long-winded readings, but he and the orchestra offered here a mellowness and strength that seemed to reflect well on their recent partnership on their European tour. They closed out with three of Brahms’s Hungarian dances that were pleasant enough but felt a little superfluous after all the music that had preceded them, like the extra chocolates on a table after a lavish dinner.
The program repeats Friday at 11:30 am and Saturday night at 8.