This past Saturday was a night of firsts for guests of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In an all-French program, acclaimed Italian conductor, Fabio Luisi, and French pianistic upstart, Lise de la Salle, made their BSO debuts. While the concert did not feature the careful artistic consideration the BSO lends to its usual program of heavier masterworks, Luisi and de la Salle substituted a delightful helping of flair for the conventional dose of substance—a move that was quite appropriate for the lighter musical fare these particular pieces offered.
The evening opened with Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger’s symphonic poem “Pastorale d’été.” Though this work does not promise much in the way of dynamic variety or musical progression, Luisi did what he could with a compositionally-constrained piece. Honegger, one of six composers loosely identified as leaders of the musical avant-garde movement in the 1920s, employed languid horns and murmuring strings to capture the flavor of first light in a pastoral setting.
Alternating horn and flute solos were tonally layered upon high woodwind accompaniment, providing colorful interludes between the serene string passages. In a slight lull, the ensemble reached a plateau halfway through and wandered a little too much under Luisi’s distinctly European conducting, with more reserved gestures as its stylistic marker. The absence of the BSO’s regular concertmaster may also have contributed to a rather half-hearted string ensemble.
Twenty one-year-old prodigy Lise de la Salle picked up the slack with her delivery of Camille Saint-Saen’s popular “Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor.” The solo piano passage that opens the piece—whose lack of a conventional orchestral prologue or a customarily slow second movement deviates significantly from the standard concerto structure—calls a Bach organ fantasy to mind. Sweeping broken arpeggios paired with a vibrant treatment of melody distinguished de la Salle’s delivery, though an enthusiastic orchestral accompaniment sometimes overpowered piano chords that were already slightly lacking in fullness.
The second movement, a humorous scherzando with embellishments crisp enough to make Mendelssohn—the master of this so-called fairy music—proud, benefited from a feathery orchestral texture and methodically precise fingerwork on de la Salle’s part. A syncopated waltz transitioned into a breakneck Presto in the third movement. Soloist and ensemble approached the closing tarantella with a startling recklessness that Luisi impressively translated into exhilaration.
The orchestra again took center stage for the program’s finale, a performance of the 1947 version of Igor Stravinsky’s burlesque in four movements, “Petrushka.” Petrushka, which was first performed by Diaghlilev’s Ballet Russes in 1911, provides a delightful contrast to the composer’s later, seminal work Le Sacru du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”). Petrushka’s plot line of musical puppets cavorting on a fairground cannot begin to compete with Stravinsky’s story of a maiden who is chosen to dance herself to death for the fertility of the earth in “The Rite of Spring,” nor does it presume to. Put simply, Petrushka doesn’t want you to take it too seriously, nor does Luisi approach its execution as such.
Holding nothing back, Luisi moved to all corners of the podium as he gestured for biting brass punches to give way to penetrating piccolo runs and rumbling timpani rolls, all of which punctuated violin parts frenetic enough to break a few strings along the way. The brass section was assertive and bold, but never shrill in its approach, inserting sarcastic staccatos in the most traditionally irreverent of places. Luisi urged the ensemble to a pleasantly deafening climax, raising questions as to why the BSO doesn’t program entertaining pieces like these more often.
Luisi and de la Salle’s debuts with the BSO speak to the orchestra’s enduring ability to attract exciting talent, as well as its willingness to forsake substance-laden masterpieces for works whose value lies in pure virtuosity and amusement. Mahler symphonies and Tchaikovsky concertos are unquestionably more epic in scale and impact than any of the pieces programmed on Saturday, but a little bit of fun—especially in the tradition-heavy Symphony Hall—never hurt anyone.
—Staff writer Monica S. Liu can be reached at email@example.com.