Maurice Ravel opened his 1928 tour of the United States conducting a series of concerts with the Boston Symphony featuring his own music. Ninety years later, the orchestra commemorates the event with an all-Ravel program including two pieces performed then: his orchestrations of Debussy’s Sarabande and Danse (Tarantelle Styrienne) plus the Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand, and the complete Daphnis et Chloé. Canadian maestro, Jacques Lacombe filled Symphony Hall with a kaleidoscope of colors.

Jacques Lacombe © Fred Stucker
Jacques Lacombe
© Fred Stucker

Ravel did not even attempt to approximate Debussy’s technique and orchestrated the two  dances in his own style, with a restricted palette for the dark-hued Sarabande and a more varied one for the brighter Danse, punctuated by the harp and sprinkled with exclamations from a greater array of percussion, with triangle, tambourine, and crotales prominent. Sarabande processed in stately languor; Danse glowed brightly with the Mediterranean sparkle of the tarantella. To give greater clarity to Ravel’s colors and orchestration, Lacombe reversed the seating of the violas and cellos for the entire program.

The piano concerto shares a kinship with Le Tombeau du Couperin as an expression of Ravel’s despair and disenchantment following the First World War. Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right arm to a combat injury and commissioned the piece, was a mutilated reminder of how much the war had changed everything. With a fractured version of the Dies irae as the main and recurring theme, the concerto becomes a long lamentation, a requiem for lives lost and a world – cultural, political and physical – destroyed. Ravel makes the pianist seem whole, though, by frequently arranging chords, arpeggios and pedaling to create the illusion of more than one hand playing, even though the left hand remains mostly in normal left-hand territory throughout.

Lacombe, sensitive to Ravel’s subtext, immediately evoked a sense of darkness brooding over the void with ominous arpeggiating double basses, a sinister contrabassoon, and horns briefly moaning the Dies irae. Artist-in-residence, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, heralded the piano’s entry with a bracingly bold and loud detonation of the first chords of his prolonged opening cadenza. Energy and power carried over into a sardonic, marching Scherzo, where the Dies irae sings the blues and tart, fanfare-like figures along with skeletal clatter from the woodblock interject. Thibaudet built his closing cadenza slowly, with resignation until Lacombe had the orchestra cut him short with the sharp, quick slices of the closing chords. Thibaudet offered a soulful Pavane pour une infante défunte as an encore and dedicated it to the children murdered in the Parkland, Florida massacre. It brought a tear to many an eye.

The BSO has performed music from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé over 250 times in its 137-year history. Though the second suite accounts for most of this number, the complete score has not been ignored with memorable performances later committed to disc from Munch (twice), Ozawa, Haitink and Levine. Lacombe, who also conducted Daphnis et Chloé at Tanglewood two years ago, can add himself to this list. He colored each episode with the shifting hues and timbres of its specific atmospherics and shrewdly molded the swells and surges from which the alluring solo contributions by flute, oboe, English horn and French horn rose. Beginning with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’ expert a cappella episode, Lacombe increased tension and voltage through the scene in the pirate camp to the Danse générale’s paroxysm of orgiastic release.