The final two programs of the Boston Symphony’s 2015-2016 season have been tune-ups for their upcoming May tour, but also glances back at works performed earlier. Last week’s Mahler 9 hearkened back, through contrast and comparison, to Shostakovich’s Eighth and Mahler’s own First. Though Dutilleux’s Métaboles will not be part of the tour program, it does complete this season’s celebration of the centennial of the composer’s birth and an association with the orchestra going back to the Munch era.

Kristine Opolais with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony © Michael Blanchard
Kristine Opolais with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

Métaboles is one of Dutilleux’s most immediately accessible works, a bright, kaleidoscopic, playful theme and variations frolicking around the note E and a brief rhythmic and chordal motif in the woodwinds and which revels unabashedly in its debt to Debussy and Ravel, the two composers closing the program. Divided in five descriptively named movements, Métaboles is played without pause, each part overlapping the other like “roofing tiles” as Dutilleux himself described it. In each movement a motif – rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic – is introduced and undergoes a series of permutations until a new motif forms and slips into the next movement. Specific instruments color each of the five: Incantatoire using the full orchestra with the winds dominant, the strings taking the assignment in Linéaire, the brass in Obsessionnel, the extensive array of percussion in Torpide, with everything coming full circle in the brilliant, rollicking Flamboyant, the whole cycle encompassing two of Dutilleux’s obsessions, metamorphosis and the circularity of time. Clarity and rhythmic vitality along with scrupulous attention to accents and colors allowed each instrumental cohort to shine and the piece as a whole to take wing in a stirring opening to the program.

Kristine Opolais entered in a drape-collared, salmon, mermaid gown to close the first half with two vocal selections: Rachmaninov’s song, Zdes’ khorosho (How fair this spot, orchestrated by Michael Rot), and the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Clocking in at just 22 measures, the Rachmaninov is briefer than a mayfly’s lifespan. Yet it manages to sculpt an arc of rhapsodic revery which Opolais captured in what seemed like one, unbroken breath and capped with a high B taken pianissimo to end the song on a sigh of contentment.

Pushkin compares his 17 year-old Tatyana to a “wild, shy doe”. Tchaikovsky’s music for the Letter Scene capers and vaults accordingly, tracking the whipsawed emotions of his heroine as she endeavors to put into words her love for Onegin. By turns impetuous, hesitant, uncertain, and confident, Tatyana works herself into a frenzy fueled by the dreams and novels which have been her sole and constant companions from her earliest days. Opolais is no stranger to Tatyana. In fact, it was the role which first brought her and Nelsons together. She adeptly shifted gears vocally and dramatically throwing herself headlong into the emotional ebb and flow of Tatyana’s turbulent outpourings. As in the Rachmaninov, calibrated dynamics and word coloring – the use of chest voice on the word ukorom (scorn), for example – grounded her interpretation. The smoky timbre of her voice added an unaccustomed sultry sensuality. Her husband was an ardent accompanist, too often too ardent, however, unnecessarily  covering the vocal line.

La Mer and La Valse have been in the BSO’s DNA since the days of Pierre Monteux. The orchestra could play them in their sleep, but never does, allowing each new conductor to put his own stamp on them. Nelsons’ La Mer was unhurried and spirited, a trance-like phantasmagoria of shimmering colors and undulations. He ably navigated from dark to light in the first sketch, steered the difficult course of the second with a light touch and playful, dancing lilt, and breasted the chop, swells, and surges of wind and water in the fourth to bring the piece to a sunburst conclusion.

La Valse was etched in acid, sharp, cutting and strident, Ravel performed in the shadow of Nelsons’ and the BSO’s ongoing Shostakovich project. An undercurrent of hysteria inflected the entire poème choregraphique from the ghostly opening thrumming of the double basses, through the growing roll, pitch and yaw of its parody, to its frenzied disintegration and hectic collapse – a danse macabre with an accent on the macabre.

The BSO observes an end-of-season tradition where retiring players and staff take a farewell bow from the podium. This year three people representing nearly 100 years off service took their leave: violists Robert Barnes (49 years) and Kazuko Matsusaka (25 years) and Assistant Librarian John Perkel (18 years).