The program was dubbed “Romance at the Phil”, but the music presented was hardly the sort to set lovers’ hearts aflame. It could even said to be a touch staid. There was Mendelssohn and Mozart in the first half. Richard Strauss is closer to the mark – this is the composer of Salome, after all – but it was his jovial Don Quixote that closed out the night.

Charles Dutoit
Charles Dutoit

Charles Dutoit, now 76, is one of those conductors that has been typecast for single niche: in his case excelling in Gallic repertoire. He certainly has, no doubt. But in his program – every composer a Teuton – Dutoit demonstrated that breadth of his range.

No better confirmation of this was heard than in the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture: the gloomy, Scottish seascape soon giving way to choppy seas and the crashing white crests of great waves. Dutoit imbued the performance with a lean muscularity and urgency that drove the score with a sense of the inevitable all the way to its coda.

His take on Mozart’s bright Symphony no. 29, on the other hand, was icy in comparison. The first and second movements were rushed unduly, though the conductor was in better form in the Scherzo. But the finale managed to drag despite the fleet tempo – an impression not helped by his choice to observe that movement’s repeat and a certain rhythmic flat-footedness.

It was in Don Quixote where Dutoit and the orchestra really shone at their best.

In his CD recordings Dutoit evinced a fine ear for pastel orchestral coloring and shading. That sensibility came through vividly in concert; the full panoply of Strauss’ orchestral palette conveyed with effortless fluidity and with a twist of bawdy humor.

Cellist Gautier Capuçon was the soloist as the Man from La Mancha, the orchestra’s viola principal Carrie Davis as Sancho Panza, each playing their part with an earnestness that at times bordered on the grim – which wouldn’t seem to work on paper. Yet it was a brilliant interpretative choice as they made a delicious “straight man” foil to the cackling prankings of the orchestra. It also heightened the whiff of world-weariness in the score, allowing them to wring a poignant beauty from the tone poem’s final movement. It could have been even better without Capuçon’s self-conscious physical emoting, which sometimes proved distracting.

So much for make-out music, then. But on its own, chaste terms, it was a night of rewarding music-making just the same.

***11