Longevity amongst conductors is so common it has been the subject of serious studies. Leading an orchestra seems to be the royal road to the Fountain of Youth. Leopold Stokowski and Sir Neville Marriner remained active into their nineties, only relinquishing the podium when death came to take them by the hand. Compared to them, Charles Dutoit, who turned 80 just two weeks ago, is a babe in the woods. The energy and engagement he brought to a vigorous and stimulating program of works by British composers bodes well for the years to come.

Charles Dutoit © Robert Taylor
Charles Dutoit
© Robert Taylor

The Boston Symphony last performed Sir William Walton’s Portsmouth Point in 1941. Inspired by a popular 1811 print by Thomas Rowlandson depicting a tumultuous dockside scene in a seedy quarter of Portsmouth long favored by the tars of the Royal Navy, the overture is a rollicking romp of shifting cross rhythms and incandescent scene painting, a pell-mell piece off and running at a gallop from the outset. “Spice Island” was another name for this notorious tenderloin and spice is exactly what infused the overture as Dutoit and the orchestra exhaled this rousing piece in one deep breath.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor is imbued with the melancholy and sense of loss World War I left in its wake, reflecting the composer’s growing conviction that “everything good [ … ] was gone for good.” That conviction was substantiated when his wife died six months after the concerto’s first performance in October, 1918. This would be his final major composition. The Boston Symphony has programmed the Elgar with Yo-Yo Ma six times since 1989. Their seventh collaboration found Ma as masterful as ever technically, but almost withdrawn in his introspection and adopting a dynamic range which verged at times on the inaudible. The performance also took some time to gel, thanks to a miscalculation in his attacking the solo opening lament before the audience had quite settled in from its welcoming applause. Once overcome, the initial estrangement yielded to the emotional weight of the sombre death march which dominates the first movement. By the third and fourth movements everyone was totally engaged, with Ma listening as intently as he played, looking and leaning toward various sections, particularly the low strings, and blending his timbre with theirs. Dutoit’s spare accompaniment took its cue from his soloist. The sensitive and responsive synergy between them fashioned the penultimate Adagio into a mournful sigh.

Gustav Holst was something of a mystic. So it might have struck him as prophetic that the four short/two long beat of the relentless bass line in “Mars” spells the letters ET in Morse code, given how his orchestral suite, The Planets, came to be mined for film scores by the likes of John Williams. Yet, in its time, the suite was considered such a challenging piece for both players and audience that Sir Adrian Boult performed only five of the seven planets at one of the earliest public performances, judging that thirty minutes of such novel and complex music was as much as an audience could be expected to take in. Dutoit has a long history with The Planets, including an acclaimed recording with the Montreal Symphony. He knows how to pace the piece, balance the various forces of the large orchestra required, and build to a dramatic climax. His economy of gesture belies the response he receives.

As a specialist in the French repertoire, he is also attuned to how much Holst’s score owes to Ravel and Debussy and, through them, Rimsky-Korsakov. “Mars” was bold and aggressive; “Venus” gentle and irenic;“Mercury” buoyant and nimble; “Jupiter”, the Santa Claus of the Zodiac, boisterous and expansive, “Saturn” heavy, brooding and austere, yet eerily soothing; “Uranus” thumbing his nose, mockingly subversive and iconoclastic, and transcendent “Neptune", shrouded in mists of myth and mystery dispersing to the fading voices of a female chorus. Holst indicates that the chorus repeat the final bar of the suite “until it is lost in the distance” a spectral effect achieved vocally by the offstage Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (prepared by guest conductor, Lisa Graham), abetted by the silent, steady closing of the door to the wings.

Saturn, Holst’s “Bringer of Old Age,” now shines on Charles Dutoit. Astrologically, the ringed planet is also The Sage, the one who, through the acceptance of life’s lessons, confers both wisdom and the endurance, patience and determination to overcome all odds. What better planet to have in your corner as you mark your eightieth year and look to the future?