Lacombe makes impressive BSO debut in French program

February 16, 2018 at 11:38 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand with Jacques Lacombe and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand with Jacques Lacombe and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Jean-Yves Thibaudet has been a frequent guest soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tanglewood and Symphony Hall in recent seasons. This spring the French pianist begins a series of performances as the BSO’s artist-in-residence. While in the spotlight he will perform as soloist in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (Age of Anxiety) in subscription concerts next month.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Thibaudet offered another of the jazziest works in the repertoire as part of a tasteful all-French program. Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, led by Jacques Lacombe in his subscription debut, proved a fine showpiece for Thibaudet’s dazzling technique and probing musical mind.

Cast in a single movement, the concerto is rife with difficult passagework for the pianist. Thibaudet handled the cascading figures with his usual clarity and singing tone. He also took time to shade his passages with colorful touches. The second theme moved in soft glowing phrases, while the darting lines of the quick section bounded with impish energy and momentum.

Lacombe led an accompaniment that ranged from primordial darkness to lush, sweeping passages at the concerto’s height. Wind solos were a particular delight as bassoon and sliding trombone added a touch of bluesy swagger.

An encore brought more Ravel, this time with both hands. Thibaudet dedicated his hymn-like and searching rendition of the Pavane for a Dead Princess to the victims of the recent school shooting in Florida.

Thursday’s program of works by Debussy and Ravel commemorated the 90th anniversary of Ravel’s visit to Boston as part of an American tour in 1928. On that occasion he led the BSO in a concert of his own music.

Missing from that historic concert, though, was his Daphnis et Chloé, a work that has been a staple of the BSO’s repertoire for much of the 20th century. The orchestra has released recordings of the complete ballet as well as the more frequently performed Second Suite under the BSO Classics and Deutsche Grammophon labels, respectively.

Lacombe was a substitute for Charles Dutoit, the veteran conductor who the BSO—and most other American orchestras–cut all ties with following revelations of sexual harassment and misbehavior.

The Canadian conductor has a fine feel for Ravel’s colorful orchestration and rich musical imagery. Lacombe casts an elegant presence on the podium; he leads with gentle waving gestures, allowing the myriad scoring details to rise naturally to the surface.  Ravel’s instrumentation blends like paint on a canvas. Melodies were sculpted in vocal arcs with wind and string lines rising and falling like breath.

In Thursday’s performance of the complete ballet score, the music-making was always organic, never just a collection of sequences. Lacombe found power and surging intensity as well as stirring lyricism. Quick podium lunges brought additional resonance to cello and bass lines in the work’s opening section. As the music grew more animated, the stormy passages swelled to robust heights.

The opening dawn music was bold and radiant as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by James Burton, supplied moments of warmth and ethereal grandeur. 

Elizabeth Rowe’s flute solo turned from silvery resonance to plush velvet in a single line. Robert Sheena’s English horn phrases seemed to call out from a distance while setting a calm pastoral scene. But this reading didn’t always rest in Arcadian paradise. The concluding Danse générale blazed as the brass delivered moments of biting intensity.

Opening the concert were two short piano works by Debussy, which Ravel orchestrated and conducted with the BSO in 1928. Lacombe drew tender and sensitive playing from the Sarabande, and the orchestra responded colorfully. A mournful oboe brushed against billowy string figures and a trumpet phrase soared overhead. The ensuing Danse bounded with energy, the lines seeming to twirl about in space.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200

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