The riotous energy of carnival dazzled Symphony Hall as Alain Altinoglu debuted with the Boston Symphony in a program he assembled as a personal homage to Charles Munch. Le Carnaval romain ignited the festivities. Berlioz fashioned his concert overture from two Act 1 episodes from his opera Benvenuto Cellini: the sculptor’s duet with Teresa, and the Fat Tuesday tumult in Piazza Colonna which closes the act. Standing tall, chin up, Altinoglu unleashed the orchestra with vigorous, sharp gestures, turning completely to his left and right to shape or underline a particular phrase in the strings. The rhythmic pulse was steady but pliant and tension built without excessive speed or blurring the line. The duet music was given a languid caress by Robert Sheena’s English horn and then the rest of the orchestra before the swirling woodwinds announced the onslaught of revelers. The break to the finish was so infectious it moved a gentleman nearby to exclaim, “If it weren’t so damn cold tonight, I’d run out of here right now and raise some hell!”

Alain Altinoglu © Michael Blanchard
Alain Altinoglu
© Michael Blanchard

Édouard Lalo wrote his Symphonie espagnole for the Spanish violin virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate. Spangled with gypsy and Moorish motifs, and pulsing with the dance rhythms of the tango, seguidilla and habanera, this concerto, along with Carmen which premiered a month later, help set Spain as the exotic other for generations of French composers. Lalo, an accomplished violinist himself, knew well how to exploit Sarasate’s strengths: speed, precision, delicacy of touch, and mastery of the pianissimo. George Bernard Shaw spoke of Sarasate’s overall “quietude”– a total lack of the look-at-me virtuosity which makes a performance more about the soloist than the music. Each of these descriptions applied to Renaud Capuçon, who seemed to be channeling his predecessor in a display of joyous virtuosity which had the audience applauding between movements. Playing from memory, he lavished a pure singing tone and showered a rainbow of colors on Lalo’s carnivalesque espagnolade. Capuçon and Altinoglu have known each other since conservatory days. That familiarity showed in the fluid ease of the give and take between soloist and orchestra, particularly in the second movement when the orchestra dances and the violin sings. These days, standing ovations have become almost Pavlovian. This one was well deserved.

Renaud Capuçon, Alain Altinoglu and the Boston Symphony © Michael Blanchard
Renaud Capuçon, Alain Altinoglu and the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

Dutilleux’s Symphony no. 2 “Le Double” with its shimmering textures and haunting harmonies hinting at a sublime world of mists and shadows and mystery banished revelry for the beginning of the second half of the program. Commissioned by the BSO for its 75th anniversary, it received its first performance in 1959 under Munch. Dutilleux embraced the spirit of the concerto grosso without tying himself to its strict form. A chamber orchestra of four timpani, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, two violins, viola, cello, harpsichord and celesta spreads in an arc from the conductor’s right across the middle of the stage. The remainder of the orchestra surrounds them. The chamber group introduces thematic and harmonic material, repeated and subtly elaborated before being picked up by the main orchestra. The group mirrors and contrasts the main orchestra occasionally retaking center stage until the bits and pieces gradually coalesce into their final form in a process Dutilleux called “progressive growth”. The process repeats and the mystery deepens with each movement, each movement ending on a question mark. Altinoglu kept the density Dutilleux’s proliferating textures generate from becoming a dead weight to the rising lines which buoy the symphony. His accent was on the spiritual aspect, most graphically manifest in the transition from the jazzy syncopations of the wild Allegro fuocoso section of the final movement to the evanescent, concluding Calmato.

Roussel’s 1933 Bacchus et Ariane Suite no. 2 roused Dionysus from his nap to close the program with one of Munch’s favorite pieces. Made up of all the Act 2 music from Roussel’s ballet, it tells of Ariadne’s rescue from Naxos by Bacchus. The eight episodes are in his leaner, neoclassical style while still preserving the pictorial spectrum of colors from his earlier impressionist phase. Altinoglu recognizes that the suite’s sensuality is in the episodes’ rhythmic vitality which builds from Ariadne’s awakening to the closing wild bacchanal. This performance makes a convincing case that Roussel's score deserves to be choreographed, even if “Bacchus’ Dance” sounds too much like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to keep Mickey Mouse from crashing the pas de deux.

*****