Claude Debussy’s La Mer, Charles Dutoit, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra formed a perfect triad at Thursday evening’s Symphony Hall concert. Henri Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain (“A whole distant world”) for cello and orchestra, had young soloist Gautier Capuçon brooding against an orchestral backdrop of modern manifestations. Richard Strauss’s orchestral suite Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme opened the program in reserved as well as unreserved displays of the ridiculous and sublime, all caught by our BSO under admired guest conductor Dutoit.
Experience and empathy of a profound order prevailed in a seascape as majestic as it was elusive. I cannot remember a performance, live or recorded, that reached so far and wide as did this paradigmatic performance of La Mer. Ancient Greek historian and biographer Plutarch said “all things are subject to motion.” This could not have been more obvious than in the uncountable moving parts of the French Impressionist’s celebrated orchestral tone poem as revealed so incomparably by conductor and orchestra.
If you were there at Symphony Hall you may have also found it nearly impossible to take your eyes off one of the most admired conductors of our time, especially when it comes to the French repertoire. He is a sight to behold, a choreographer extraordinaire. You have to see with your own eyes what he does to believe it! A gentilhomme, Maître Dutoit, right from the start of the concert, exchanged pleasantries with Principal Cellist Jules Eskin and others who were flanking his pathway to the podium. From that moment on, a rare relaxed and refreshing air emanated from an orchestra that has been obliged to play under an unusual number of batons during this current season.
The BSO could not have made a greater sound than it did in La Mer. From the staggered bowing of the first violins on a pianissimo high harmonic sustained during the last movement, “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea,” to its massed, monumental climactic close, an orchestral euphoria reigned. The gentilhomme in Dutoit yet again shone through as he deferred to the orchestra, stepping back from the podium and inviting soloists and all to stand to acknowledge ovations from what I would like to believe was a genuinely astounded Boston audience.
A slower global motion rolled on throughout Tout un monde lointain. Thirty-one-year-old Capuçon, on his 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello — an instrument that surprised with its capacity for a good deal of power if not with its played-down brightness, a kind of mellowed brilliance — spun out the soul-searching circles of Dutilleux. Capuçon effusively seized the striving and the unattainable state that is everywhere expressed in the five-movement concerto-like work (dating from 1970). His ardent playing drew upon a solid technique, even at the highest possible point on the fingerboard. Sometimes the fleet passages were too fast to discern, and so a touch less enticing. Like distant atmospheres and lustrous stellar objects, the orchestral commentaries were captured through the fine esthetically tuned telescopic lens of the BSO and Dutoit.
Curious was the programming of a throwback such as Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite — its nine movements made up the first half of the concert — with the likes of the two French composers. I could have done without the Strauss, even its crazy flutes and clarinets, odd percussion sounds, and extended solo work by Eskin and Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, all of whom kept me occupied with their stylistic takes on a time capsule staking its now questionably relevant claims. Not all went perfectly: imbalances of brass over strings over piano, a prominent high oboe fluff, and a weird upward blurt from the trumpet in the opening of “The Fencing Master.” These were insignificant in an emotionless exercise of old quasi-courtly meddling.