Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu made a big impression in his début with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in a colorful program of Ravel, Chopin, and Stravinsky – Le Tombeau de Couperin , the Piano Concerto no. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21, and Petrushka, respectively. While the printed program notes suggested a “French” theme (France being the homeland of Ravel, and Paris specifically the adopted city of Chopin and Stravinsky), “the influence of the piano” could just as well have been a unifying thread.

Le Tombeau de Couperin was written for solo piano and only later arranged (minus two movements, the Fugue and the Toccata) by Ravel for orchestra. The compact four-movement format proves a bit more coherent in performance and recalls in its lightness and neoclassicism Debussy’s Petite Suite, also written for piano (four-hands) and later tastefully orchestrated by Paul-Henri Büsser. The Chopin concerto’s debt to the piano is obvious; even more one-sided an affair than the Concerto no. 1, the orchestra part is a glorified half-hour smoke break. (This is not to slight the work – the piano writing is extraordinary, and not every concerto needs the weight and balance of Beethoven.) Stravinsky originally conceived of Petrushka for solo piano and orchestra, only to be talked into scoring it as a ballet. The finished work maintained a prominent piano part, and was influential in securing the instrument’s permanent place within the orchestra. There is also Trois Mouvements de Petrushka, Stravinsky’s own virtuosic transcription of selections of the work for solo piano, frequently heard in performance today.

In one of the cheekier breaches of concert hall dress code, concertmaster Nathan Olson received a warm round of applause and laughter by donning a Texas Rangers cap when he first appeared on stage. (The Rangers are currently playing in baseball’s World Series, and if fans were to pass up watching the game in favor of the symphony, they would at least be treated to a lighthearted evening.) The hat was ultimately tossed out of sight under a chair, but not before being turned backwards for its logo to face the audience while Mr. Olson tuned the orchestra.

Even this, however, was no match for the visual entertainment on the podium for the remainder of the evening. Hannu Lintu is the conducting equivalent to the famous caricatures of Liszt playing piano. The word “flair” would be an understatement of Mr. Lintu’s physical mannerisms, but it also carries connotations of superficiality that in his case are unwarranted. Mr. Lintu is a brilliant craftsman and engaging artist, and whatever may strike some as excessive in his body language can certainly be chalked up to artistic license.

His take on Le Tombeau favored transparency and a strong differentiation of timbres between sections of the orchestra, and an emphasis on jaunty rhythmic accents in the Forlane and Rigaudon worked nicely in Ravel’s understated score. (The DSO’s “Casual Fridays Series”, in which their Friday evening concerts are slightly abbreviated and without intermission, will sadly exclude this work entirely.) The wind section was phenomenal, the rule rather than the exception to the quality of playing this evening.

Pianist Joaquín Achúcarro gave a dignified reading of Chopin’s F Minor Concerto, conveying above all else a sense of calm enjoyment. Mr. Achúcarro, who has taught for more than twenty years at nearby Southern Methodist University, emphasized the influence of bel canto opera in phrases that were unified yet set apart from one another with ample breaths. In the florid ornamentation, too, Mr. Achúcarro eschewed virtuosity in favor of making the lines sound vocal and pronounced. A few more surprises would have been welcome, but the waltz-like finale was charming, its coda sufficiently brilliant. Mr. Lintu was a strong accompanist, and the orchestra played with consistent purpose in a score that gives them little to work with.

Petrushka, the ballet, features a puppet love triangle in which the title character’s demise is tragically inconsequential, but one hardly missed any of this in its concert version Thursday evening. Mr. Lintu spent a good deal of time conducting en pointe, his wild gestures in fact reminiscent of a marionette. Even more than in the Ravel, however, this extreme visual display was always subservient to a masterful performance. The orchestra was impeccably managed, and Mr. Lintu appeared loose and fluid, focused always on higher artistic concerns. The winds and brass in particular provided myriad colors and moods along with flawless execution. Mr. Lintu achieved through the sound of the orchestra the poignant detachment with which Stravinsky presents the hardships of his puppet protagonist. This quality is perhaps the true genius of the work, and one that only the greatest of interpreters can express.

****1