Lugano Musica opened its season not with its resident orchestra, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit. Still sporting his trademark slick of black hair, Dutoit is a 79-year-old whirlwind of francophone charisma, and clearly brings this band's playing to a new level, especially when the repertoire happens to be French and Russian music of the 20th century. His programme tonight spotlighted Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and made it shock afresh when the musical territory had been so beautifully charted in performances of Borodin and Saint-Saëns. This was a finely-crafted reflection on one of music's major landmarks, and a sign of intent from a music series that aims to challenge its audiences with bold programming.

Bertrand Chamayou © Marco Borggreve | Warner Classics
Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve | Warner Classics

Borodin's exotic Polovtsian Dances represented the generation of Russian composers that preceded Stravinsky, and was evoked in a breezy wax and wane to Dutoit's debonair circular gestures. The work is often heard as an interlude in Borodin's opera Prince Igor, falling either in Act I or II depending on the version used, but here stood its ground as a musical miniature, where each melody unravelled on a singular journey and every line was part of well-charted whole. There was arresting sheen to the sound in the pearwood expanse of the Sala Teatro at Lugano Arts and Culture (LAC) – the multi-purpose arts centre which overlooks Lake Lugano and is home to Lugano Musica – with Borodin's woodwind flurries sounding deliciously piquant and his orchestral blooms radiating in shimmers.

Such a combination of flexibility and precision also characterised Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major, written during the composer's summer break in Egypt and standing amongst his most exotic works. The piece represents a sea voyage, according to Saint-Saëns, and rolling surges and turbulent crashes in the buoyant first movement were adorned with sea spray splashes from Swiss pianist Bertrand Chamayou. There was little discernible showmanship here: Chamayou dispatched his cascading runs with cool composure, and his well-measured rubati never tipped into self-indulgence. Whilst Dutoit's proclivity for high drama may have made the second movement start with all too big a bang, producing an exciting sound but with nowhere for it to go, his hurtling rendition of the finale had us on tenterhooks, seemingly about to come off the rails were it not for his imperious grip on the reigns.

Saint-Saëns reportedly walked out the first performance of The Rite of Spring, so offended was he by Stravinsky's affront to established musical traditions, in which the composer subverted Classical proportion and Romantic melody for what Puccini described as “sheer cacophony”. This was a charged rendition which combined an analytical overlaying of geometric forms with visceral energy. The muscular accented thrusts of “Augurs of Spring” tore through the hall. Tension built throughout weaving wind and brass interjections, dissipating only when strings dug deep in earthy expulsions for "Spring Rounds". We were left feeling violated.

Such was made possible by the animalistic power that emanated from Dutoit. Only in the searching introduction to Part II did the energy sag. Elsewhere, this swaggering peacock from Lausanne drew blistering sounds from his players, prowling the podium to confront them face on. Dutoit carved the air with audacious shapes and the nonchalance of an abstract-expressionist throwing paint onto the canvas. The roaring climax had us submerged in modernist shrieks, the hall's tight acoustic providing nowhere to hide. With its world-beating hall, a glittering roster of international visitors and an adventurous approach to programming, Lugano Musica is an emergent success.