in: Reviews

March 30, 2009

Violinist Batiashvili Debut, Guest Conductor Dutoit, Superb with BSO

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Charles Dutoit’s insouciant slow stroll from the stage door to the podium would suggest a laid-back approach to music-making from this Swiss-French maestro, but this assumption was quickly proved wrong on Saturday, March 28, as he began the slow and quiet introductory measures of Ravel’s exquisite orchestration of his piano four-hands Ma Mère l’oye. If absolute silence from a large mid-March Symphony Hall audience were any indication, Dutoit had his listeners—and his players—in his thrall from the moment of his upbeat.

Dutoit formed the Montreal Symphony Orchestra into this continent’s most French of orchestras during his sometimes stormy 25-year stint there as Music Director from 1977 to 2002. Since his departure, he has been guest conducting all over the world and was recently appointed Chief Conductor by the Philadelphia Orchestra as it searches for a new music director. His appearances with our BSO have been illuminating and exciting. His reading here last season of the Organ Symphony of Saint-Saëns lingers in the memory as an ideal amalgam of French suavity and fire. The present run of Ravel, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky showcased these same strengths.

In its present state of excellence, can there be any orchestra to compare to the BSO for the sheer beauty of sound it brings to Ravel? This composer has had a welcome home in Symphony Hall form the very beginning of BSO concerts therein. Karl Muck and the Orchestra had first performed “Mother Goose” in Boston in 1913, and thereafter all of the Orchestra’s Music Directors have presented it. Koussevitzky notably made an early recording, then Munch, Ozawa, and Principal Guest Bernard Haitink followed suit. Now Dutoit has put his own mark on the work, and the result was an extraordinarily elegant and beautifully sensitive reading. From first-desk solos through the back rows of the strings, all seemed inspired to give their utmost in beauty of tone and individual expression. One especially remembers the impressionistic sheen of the evanescent rising scales which begin and end the Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb) movement, the pungent contra-bassoon embodiment of Beast in Conversations of Beauty and the Beast as so colorfully played by Gregg Henegar, and the tears-inducing Fairy Garden sequence, where childhood innocence and wonder are so uncannily recalled by the composer. Not often is this score so richly illumined and lovingly presented as it was in this performance.

It has also been a good week for Prokofiev in Boston. Following the superb London Symphony/Gergiev March 25th Symphony Hall reading of the composer’s Symphony No. 5, the utterly extraordinary young violinist Lisa Batiashvili made her BSO debut with the composer’s demanding Concerto in G, op. 63. This is another work which looms large in the BSO’s history – the Orchestra recorded this work in 1937 with Heifetz and Koussevitzky (its first-ever recording), Heifetz and Munch in 1959, and again in 1966 with Pearlman and Leinsdorf. It is tribute to Ms. Batiashvili that she made me temporarily forget all previous performances of this music that I have heard. Bringing an air of assurance that belied her tender age, this Georgian (Russia) firebrand played flawlessly and with a passion and gentle sensitivity wholly appropriate to the mercurial demands of this essentially lyric though thorny masterwork.

Ravishing in tone and note-perfect in execution, her mastering of this concerto’s many challenges was not lost on the violinists in the orchestra, who gave her an enthusiastic foot-scuffing and bow-waving ovation – the sweetest music to any soloist’s ears and eyes. Aside from playing angelically, Ms. Batiashvili also looks the part. Great things surely await her in her musical future. Dutoit’s accompaniment was sensitive, detailed and excitingly propelled as the music demanded. A fabulous performance was the happy result.

The original version of Stravinsky’s 1911 masterpiece Petrushka is not heard as often in concert as the composer’s later 1946 orchestration due to the large number of players required to perform the earlier version. The instrumental color and energy of the 1911 original is irrepressible compelling and  wondrous to hear. Yet Petrushka, whatever the version, is ever a miracle of orchestration and remarkable creativity. Think of how this music from its then 29-year-old composer must have sounded to its Parisian audience at the music’s premiere; they surely must have thought a new genius had once again been dropped in their midst, especially after having been dazzled by this same genius’s Firebird ballet the year before. With Le Sacre to follow in 1912, Parisians were soon to be in for even more astonishment. What a time it must have been for a music lover and balletomane to be living in Paris!

Again , there is a long BSO association with Petrushka. Koussevitzky, Monteux, and Ozawa all recorded it, and the list of visiting conductors who have programmed it at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood is long, including the composer himself in Boston in 1946 who offered the world-premiere of the first three tableaux in their leaner orchestration with the 1911 orchestration of the final scene.

One would be hard-pressed to think how the performance given by Dutoit and the BSO on Saturday evening could have been bettered. Everything the work demands was on display: brilliant color, extraordinary virtuosity, fabulous first-desk soloing (Elizabeth Rowe, flute, Robert Sheena, English horn, William Hudgins, clarinet, Richard Svoboda, bassoon, Thomas Rolfs, trumpet, Tamira Smirnova, concertmaster, … all the low brass, horns, and percussion had a wonderful night), and a unanimity of purpose from the entire ensemble that was mesmerizing and riveting. Dutoit’s absolutely clear direction, his concepts of instrumental line and timbre, his pacing, his self-assurance and élan, all coalesced this band of individual virtuosi into a great ensemble performance. The teeming bustle of the Shrove-Tide Fair sequence, with its inimitable “Dancing Bear” depiction is still happily playing back in my memory.

Superb concerts such as this are what bring life to Boston’s musical community, and it was gratifying to see so many younger visitors in Symphony Hall. One hopes that the Orchestra’s many determined efforts to attract new listeners to its concerts will result in many new and enthusiastic supporters in the seasons ahead.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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