Boston Symphony Orchestra

at Symphony Hall

March 22


Walk through the Huntington Avenue corridor on the orchestra level of Symphony Hall this season and you’ll see the original manuscript of Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms on display, a work commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in 1930. That year was a particularly important one for the BSO, which also commissioned Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, Copland’s Symphonic Ode, and Roussel’s Third Symphony, among other pieces, to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was wonderful to hear the orchestra on Thursday night playing the Symphony of Psalms, a work that the BSO has championed since its creation.

Principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink directed with both ease and authority. His precise baton yielded wonderful control, yet there was never a sense of stiffness or tension. His elegant podium manner was only further complemented by the sound he received from the orchestra. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by John Oliver, sounded alternately warm and earthy in the right moments (such as the opening), although perhaps not “heavenly” enough for the beginning and end of the last-movement setting of Psalm 150, with its plaintive Alleluia’s. Stravinsky reveals in this movement a personal side of his music that we rarely get to hear: the typical obsession with minor thirds (which is perfectly resolved with an E-flat to C modulation at the end), but also moments of rare beauty, such as a cryptic three-note motive (D-E-flat-B-flat) that he would use throughout the Symphony in C some 10 years later.

The second half of the program consisted of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloe, performed in its entirety. This is yet another BSO specialty; former music directors Koussevitsky and Charles Munch conducted the Second Suite from the ballet a total of 224 times between 1925 and 1965. Although the Second Suite (Part Three) is an audience favourite, some of the best music is from the first two parts, such as the opening and “Danse Religieuse,” and Chloe’s “Dance of Supplication,” a meticulously written and beautifully orchestrated work.

The performance was successful on many levels, particularly principal flute Jacques Zoon’s solo in the Pan-Syrinx pantomime. Yes, he hit all the notes, but his gestures and timing were right on as well, resulting in an all-around impeccable delivery. Other members of the woodwind section played their most difficult and taxing parts brilliantly. The strings, however, were not at their strongest, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang their wordless parts too directly and without the distance sometimes required in this music. Haitink conducted effortlessly, and took the final “Danse Generale” at a brisk, exciting tempo, which proved to be very effective. This was programming at its best: two twentieth century repertoire staples performed by an orchestra whose links to both works have only become stronger over time.

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