Eschenbach, pianist provide memorable French night with BSO

March 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

By Keith Powers

Cédric Tiberghien, in his BSO debut, performed Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with Christoph Eschenbach and the BSO Friday night. Photo: Stu Rosner

Deftly making familiar music come alive, by guiding disparate forces through tricky ensemble challenges, maestro Christoph Eschenbach led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a memorable concert Friday evening at Symphony Hall.

The French program seemed unremarkable at first glance: Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini and Symphonie Fantastique, along with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with a young Frenchman, Cédric Tiberghien, making his BSO debut. But Eschenbach’s expertly detailed interpretation, and the orchestra’s obvious fondness for his ideas, led to a performance in which nearly every measure held musical interest.

The program format was UnderScore Friday, which the marketing department created a few seasons ago to attract a younger audience. With remarks by a performer or conductor from the stage, and a shortened program with no intermission, the idea was that newcomers could make it to a concert and still go clubbing afterward. The audience was younger, for sure Thursday, but the program ran more than two hours, and there was indeed (thankfully) an intermission.

Principal harpist Jessica Zhou gave the a brief introduction, speaking mainly about the harp’s importance in French music and in the Ravel concerto and Symphonie Fantastique in particular. The comments clearly focused the audience: she discussed her brief cadenza in the first movement of the concerto, and when it came time to perform it, nearly every head in the audience swiveled stage left to watch her.

The overture, which shifts gears even more than in the usual opera medley, gave the first glimpse that Eschenbach had firm ideas about what his French should sound like. He worked all evening without a score, almost never abandoning the downbeat but still coloring with vivid gestures.

Unlike the composer’s darker D Major concerto for the left hand only, Ravel’s Concerto in G major is more an ensemble showpiece, which suited Eschenbach perfectly. In the first movement, he blended the orchestra’s Americana jazz melodies with the pianist’s disjointed interruptions, not so much making a musical whole as giving a solid hint of things to come.

Which they do, beautifully, in the ruminative second movement. Marked Adagio assai, it features long scales on the piano that toy with melodic lines issuing from the winds—mainly oboe, but also flute and clarinet. The Presto finale, with its shockingly brusque introduction, is no match for the slow movement’s beauty, but conductor and soloist molded it well.

Tiberghien had few chances for virtuosic brilliance in this work, but acknowledged the complementary partnership of the performance, embracing members of the wind section.

Berlioz created Symphonie Fantastique as an innovative programmatic work, introducing lurid dreams, opium addiction and musical mayhem to shocked audiences. Problem is, the work is so successful, and so often performed, that the shock is gone.

Eschenbach revitalized it, examining each of Berlioz’ narrative elements with freshness. Of particular attraction was oboist Mark McEwen’s readings of the ranz de vaches melody during the pastorale movement. It comes twice, first sweet and playful, but then later again, troubled and searching. Eschenbach let McEwen slow it down almost beyond recognition, crystallizing the emotion. It was only one example of the maestro’s intensely introspective performance, which lead to an affectionate and long ovation.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1492.

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