It should have been an occasion to celebrate: Seiji Ozawa, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for an unprecedented 29 years, was supposed to return to the podium to conduct his beloved ensemble at Tanglewood after a decade's hiatus. Unfortunately, his doctors advised the 80-year-old maestro not to leave Japan. Jacques Lacombe, who was originally scheduled to share the podium with Ozawa took over the entire concert.

Jacques Lacombe © JF Berube
Jacques Lacombe
© JF Berube

In his second consecutive evening conducting the BSO at Tanglewood, the Canadian paired a French first half including music by Debussy (Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) and Ravel (Daphnis et Chl, Suite no. 2) with a rendering of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana after intermission.

Not too often leading the great orchestras of the world, Lacombe has been, until very recently, the music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, a position he gave up to become chief conductor of Bonn Opera next season. His conducting style is precise, fluent and elegant giving clear indications when needed but also granting his soloists a whiff of independence. He allowed the extraordinary Elizabeth Rowe to shape the soaring flute incantations in the music of Debussy and Ravel. He let baritone Stephen Powell to augment Orff’s drunken monk’s aria, Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis, with crowd pleasing, laughter inducing acting… On the other hand, he tried to closely rein in, mostly successfully, the numerous interventions of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Carmina Burana, a music that needs very strong rhythmical precision.

The Boston Symphony has a significant tradition in interpreting French repertoire. Previous music directors – Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch – have carefully cultivated this special affinity and the current roster of players has inherited a certain ease in interpreting the music of Debussy and Ravel. The Prelude à l’après midi d’un faune and Daphnis et Chloé share a lot besides a common musical idiom. Both scores evoke an Arcadian world, both were used as the musical foundation for two choreographic experiments premiered only weeks apart, in 1912, by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

It is very difficult today to assert how shocking Debussy’s response to Mallarmé’s poem must have sounded to the first listeners, how deeply disturbing the chromatic, seemingly unstructured initial melody that flows from the flute to the oboe must have been perceived. A new spirit is obviously permeating this music. It’s almost impossible to imagine anything written by Ravel without the precedent of Faune, without the new harmonies, the new orchestral sound that Debussy brought into being.

There are also significant paradoxes in the two scores that Lacombe tried to make the listener aware of. Debussy, the visionary, was not willing to give up a 19th-century approach to carefully crafting progressions and climaxes. On the other hand, Ravel, the classically leaning polisher of balanced orchestral sounds, replaced developments with abrupt shifts in rhythm and color probably inspired by Stravinsky’s Firebird.

Almost totally lacking any harmonic and polyphonic complexities, Carmina Burana can be defined as an anomaly in the history of 20th-century art. The enormous success of Orff’s setting medieval texts to music is based on the work’s exceptional accessibility. The composer had a clear ability to arouse strong emotions by means of varying dynamics and an extensive use of percussion.

As uncomplicated as the rendition of the series of songs seems to be, the score is quite challenging for the three solo voices, asked to go well beyond their regular span. In the only tenor aria, Olim Lacus Colueram/ Once I swam in lakes, a roasting swan’s comic lament, Jean-Francis Monvoisin had to sing almost completely in falsetto. With a warm baritone voice, Powell anchored the performance, distinguishing himself in Omnia Sol temperat/ All things are tempered by the Sun and in Tempus est iocundum/ Time to jest, his duet with the young soprano Nadine Sierra, accompanied by a boys’ choir. The up and coming Sierra was at her best in Dulcissime/ Sweet boy making one eager to listen to her in more significant roles.

Carmina Burana starts and finishes with Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, the most famous of the score’s tunes… Everything is fate. Don’t ask for justifications. Listening to the enthusiastic ovations marking the end of the performance, one can only think that the goddess Fortuna has taken good care of the destiny of this cantata invoking her.