Yet Aucoin’s restraint in handling these huge forces is one of the most notable things about “Heath,” whose four sections, played without pause, exude a confident, brooding reserve. With tolling bells, grim chords and an uneasy melody, the opening immediately brings to mind Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” another tale of a king gone mad.
This first section, “The Divided Kingdom,” shows Aucoin’s talent for creating orchestral textures that are simultaneously granitic and flickering, like fast-shifting storm clouds. Sharp snaps of snare drum punctuate a gradual increase in forcefulness to a bleak, expansive landscape of solemn brasses and a droning in the strings, which melts into an almost Tchaikovskian Romantic sweep.
A slightly faster second section, named after Lear’s Fool, is pierced by the hard, maniacal playfulness of flutes — hinting at the scores for Kurosawa’s filmed Shakespeare adaptations — before a brief, spare interlude inspired by the blinded Gloucester’s raw regret. The fourth part, “With a Dead March” (the play’s indication for the final mass exit), builds in dense, steady waves before suddenly receding to a subtle, discomfiting yet elegant ending of rustling percussion.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, deserves credit for consistently leading this richly gifted composer’s works with both organizations over the past few years. (Aucoin is currently working on an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Demons,” planned for the Met.)
Despite being clear and energetic on the podium, Nézet-Séguin couldn’t quite whip up the crisp brilliance needed to make the over-familiar Bernstein and Tchaikovsky pieces on the program newly memorable. Neither was slow, exactly, but they nevertheless felt a bit tired and hectically blurred, with hiccups in the horns and trumpets at the end of a long season. The Tchaikovsky lacked the passionate opulence that is this score’s reason for being.