Dutoit’s French program with BSO marks starry night, imperial day

February 26, 2016 at 2:05 pm

By David Wright

Charles Dutoit conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

Charles Dutoit conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.

On Thursday night Hector Berlioz huffed, and he puffed, and he almost blew Symphony Hall down, thanks to the efforts of a full-house Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the children’s choir Voices Boston, and organist James David Christie, all under the firm direction of Charles Dutoit.

The French composer’s early Resurrexit opened the program in sparkling style, but it was a much later work, the massive Te Deum, that rattled the statues in their niches.

Between the two Berlioz works, Henri Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement, inspired by Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night, provided an equally colorful but more meditative interlude.

Abandoning its longtime custom of performing from memory, the Tanglewood chorus sang with scores in hand. Whether because of this or something else about their preparation by guest chorus conductor James Burton, the performance of Resurrexit was exceptional for its unanimity and diction, the Latin text projecting directly from the back of the stage to the listener’s ear.

With its rhythmic, almost percussive attack contrasting with passages of velvety legato, the chorus matched or even surpassed the orchestra for variety of tone and articulation.

It wasn’t hard to hear why Berlioz saved this movement while destroying (he thought) the rest of his Messe solennelle of 1823. (Remarkably, a complete manuscript of the Messe turned up in Antwerp, Belgium in 1992.) Its profusion of themes and volatile harmony vividly evoked the excitement and confusion caused by Christ’s rising from the dead, and marked this 20-year-old as the future composer of the Symphonie fantastique.

It’s worth remembering, at least as a subtext to “Timbres, Space, Movement,” that the space race was a very current Cold War topic in 1978 when Dutilleux composed the piece for Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra—that is, the “official” orchestra of the U.S. government, led by a Soviet émigré.

But there were no national anthems or rocket ships in Dutilleux’s score Thursday night, only feelings of awe, vertigo, and spiritual uplift evoked by the iconic Van Gogh painting, with its extravagant swirls of light in the night sky.

Wanting, as he said, a sound “without a center,” Dutilleux banished violins and violas, leaving low strings on one side and high winds and percussion on the other, and an auditory sensation of empty space between them.

The first movement’s marking, “Nebulous,” referred not to any haziness of texture—the contrast of high-whistling piccolos and growling brass and double basses could hardly be more clear—but to the indistinctness of harmony and rhythm as repeating figures, mostly in long notes, constantly revolved.

After a somewhat gruff interlude for the 12 cellos (added by the composer in 1990), the stars came into focus in the closing movement, wheeling overhead as “Constellations.” While harmonies changed at a stately pace, instrumental timbres proliferated, from robust brass to lush low strings to piercing, whooshing woodwinds.

One likes to imagine that the colorful mythological stories commemorated in the constellations influenced Dutilleux’s vivid musical imagery, but the composer’s own comments referred only to Van Gogh’s canvas. In any case, Dutoit and his unusual, centerless ensemble gave listeners plenty to dream on.

Following intermission, the program’s perspective shifted from intimate contemplation of a small painting to just about the largest musical canvas one could imagine, a mighty Te Deum composed to accompany a grand imperial spectacle.

Despite the fervent wishes of Berlioz and others nostalgic for Napoleonic days, no such spectacles were contemplated in the bureaucratic France of the 1850s. Except for one performance led by the composer in 1855, this Te Deum lay neglected during his lifetime, a movie score without a movie.

But with the benefit of Hugh Macdonald’s program note and a little imagination, one could sit in Symphony Hall Thursday night and mentally roll the film of the great cathedral crammed with instrumentalists and choristers, the military standards arrayed all around, the fanfares, gun salutes, bells pealing, and a patriotic paroxysm at the entrance of the Emperor.

Accordingly, the music tended toward a broad-brush, wall-of-sound approach. Though the opening “Te Deum” chorus was rich in contrapuntal detail, there was no way to make its text as intelligible as that of the Resurrexit heard earlier. The all-out choral fortissimos battered the ears like a jet taking off down the hall’s center aisle.

There was much fine vocal work, however, in movements such as the “Tibi omnes,” with its well-tuned female voices floating over glinting woodwinds and its double-chorus dialogues. In the serene, harmonically stable “Dignare,” a tender, legato soprano line led the way, accompanied by high flutes, until a shift to minor on “miserere” brought a more veiled vocal timbre.

It was a tribute to the preparation of Voices Boston by its artistic director Steven Lipsitt that one was never aware of a kid’s chorus suddenly intruding on the music. Instead, the young singers’ skill in intonation and articulation enabled them to mesh seamlessly with their adult colleagues, adding their distinctive color to the choral palette.

Tenor Paul Groves sat patiently through the storms and the calms for his turn in the penultimate “Te ergo.” Like the entire piece itself, Groves’s well-turned solo sounded ambivalent between operatic and oratorio styles, the voice big and round and a little buzzy, the approach a bit tentative, as if he were holding back rather than scaling down for the prayerful movement.

Since Berlioz didn’t believe in mixing organ and orchestral tone, the contributions of James David Christie at the console were limited to bold preludes and punctuations, which the organist delivered with alert timing and flair.

Conductor Dutoit engaged in no podium theatrics, but controlled the whole spectacle with economical gestures and the occasional bold move to cue the effect he wanted. His management of the many lyrical and aggressive threads of the closing “Judex crederis’—Berlioz himself aptly called this music “colossal, Babylonian, Ninevite”—would be the envy of many a Hollywood film editor.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.



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