Often invited to conduct some of the world’s greatest orchestras, but not currently formally affiliated with any of them, Dima Slobodeniouk has successfully helmed the Boston Symphony Orchestra several times since 2018, both at Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall. On Saturday, he conducted a mostly French programme, the only exception being Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto. Nevertheless, one can argue that, in terms of clarity and transparency, Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing has indeed qualities that we associate with French music. Moreover, the works by Ravel and Debussy included here owe something to the 19th-century fairy style popularised by Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer’s Night Dream. 

Leonidas Kavakos, Dima Slobodeniouk and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

This rendition of the beloved E minor concerto started a tad shakily. Conductor and orchestra had difficulties following Leonidas Kavakos' eloquent but rhapsodic discourse, marked by frequent rhythmical changes. Gradually, the overall harmony was re-established. Listening to Kavakos in a less-than-perfect performance, one still had only a minimal perception of the technical difficulties he was transcending; the only thing discerned was the extraordinary beauty of tone displayed in his every phrase. Coming a day after performing here with Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma and Antoine Tamestit, his dialogues with members of the orchestra had a similar chamber music-like quality. A single encore, Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de Alhambra, originally conceived for guitar, was unremarkable.

The evening’s most intriguing choice was the rarely performed Métaboles, Dutilleux’s veritable rejection of both conventional and avant-garde ways of dealing with a score’s thematic development. In the five linked movements, the motivic material goes through what the composer deemed as an “interior evolution”. A sequence of transformations – rhythmic, melodic, harmonic – make it not only unrecognisable, but also the kernel from which the next section is going to evolve. Slobodeniouk painted the details of these metamorphoses (conveying the composer’s intention to evoke the process of biological evolution) with great diligence. One by one, he focused his attention on different instrumental sections – divisi strings in Linéaire, brass in Obsessionnel, percussion in Torpide. Without losing sight of the whole at any moment, he brought the entire ensemble together in the glorious Flamboyant, recapitulating some of the previously announced patterns and returning to the work’s starting E chord, before launching into the coda.

Dima Slobodeniouk conducts the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Dangling, even more than Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, between dream and reality, desire and achievability, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is, at the same time, constantly balancing respect for tradition with marvellous inventiveness. In a work defined by perpetually unstable harmonies and shifting hues, Slobodeniouk underlined the strong network of musical interacting patterns that exist beneath the apparent improvisational freedom characterising this ten-minute revolutionary piece.

Despite Ravel’s extraordinary talent for orchestration, certain music lovers might prefer the original version for piano four-hands of his fantastic Ma mère l’Oye. Nevertheless, Slobodeniouk and the BSO proposed a wonderfully homogenous rendition of the full orchestral score, joyful without being overly exuberant, with more hints of melancholy than menace, subtly evoking oriental accents or rhythms of traditional dances. As in the Debussy, the conductor exposed the full palette of colours that the ensemble’s woodwinds could bring forward. Six decades after Charles Munch finished revamping the BSO’s sound, his shadow seemed to smile benevolently on the current crop of musicians when playing French music.

Modest, always clearly communicating his intentions and obviously gaining the respect of the BSO musicians, Slobodeniouk deserves wider recognition. Currently the musical director of the Orchestra Sinfónica de Galicia, he is a conductor whose presence on any podium should not be overlooked.