Yet nothing that followed this starry collaboration felt anticlimactic. Saturday’s concert brought the New York premiere of a formidable 2014 work by Mr. Sciarrino, the text of which adapts Rilke’s poetic setting of the Orpheus myth. In brief remarks before performing “The New Eurydice According to Rilke,” Mr. Pappano described his admiration for the dramatic quality of Mr. Sciarrino’s sounds, encouraging the audience to think of it “operatically, if you like.”
And his vision of the piece was, indeed, operatic, full of wild swings in energy and the same intensity he brought to Verdi’s discarded (and rarely heard) Sinfonia from “Aida” on Friday. When we meet this “new Eurydice” walking through the underworld, she sounds unusual — either stammering or sounding choked. But after Orpheus’s fateful turn backward, the mood calms a bit: Longer-held tones begin to show up in Mr. Sciarrino’s score, and a greater sense of melodic line emerges.
As the work transforms, the final stanzas describe music as the “language where languages end.” The final line suggests that our prior understanding of music is “no longer habitable.” Yet these final, questioning phrases contain some of the most traditionally luminous motifs in Mr. Sciarrino’s piece, calling for Ms. Hannigan’s vibrato, as well as notes in her upper range. The effect was to have it both ways, to court the beauty of tradition while asserting that music must move forward.
These Santa Cecilia programs had it both ways, too: modern and traditional, including both this Sciarrino work and the crisp, ravishing performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 that followed it. The players, and Mr. Pappano, admirably sustained their energy over the two evenings. On Friday, after the Prokofiev, they didn’t let up in a pair of tone poems by Respighi, as well as a double-encore punch of Sibelius’s “Valse Triste” and the galloping closing section of Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” overture.
Even in that latter, most familiar of staples, this orchestra made the music more than simply habitable. They made it vibrant.