This unusual and highly interesting program by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Fabien Gabel was a colorful affair, featuring three works from the early 20th century based on the legend of Salome. In fact, all three compositions were created within a four-year span, with the most recent – Mel Bonis' – sounding the most conservative. Bonis had established her reputation based on piano and chamber music, but in 1908 studied orchestration with Charles Koechlin. Salomé, orchestrated in 1909 from the original piano score, was one of several Femmes de légende that she composed. The music displays a pleasantly “orientalist” style, but that style is in the manner of Saint-Saëns and seemed rather tame compared to the two other Salome servings on offer.

Fabien Gabel
© Stéphane Bourgeois

As for the one undisputed “warhorse” on the program, Gabel and the Detroiters turned in a masterful rendition of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss' 1905 opera Salome. This was a big-boned interpretation with dramatic sweep and thrilling climaxes. Precision ensemble was exhibited everywhere.

The most extensive of the three works was Florent Schmitt's ballet La Tragédie de Salomé. It's a piece that exudes exoticism and impressionistic color in the Prélude and Pearl Dance while also delivering plenty of drama – and barbarity – in the second part. The final section (Dance of Fright) clearly looks forward to Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps (Stravinsky was the dedicatee of Schmitt's score, in fact).

Gabel and the Detroit musicians did Schmitt's powerful score full justice, even besting the DSO's own recording done back in the days of Paul Paray. Particularly outstanding was the Prélude in which Gabel painted magical moiré colors. The Danse des perles was so thrilling it elicited a spontaneous eruption of applause, while the closing pages of the score were equal parts blood-curdling and cataclysmic. In a performance that was terrifically exciting on a visceral level – and uncommonly effective in Gabel's interpretation – it was clear that the musicians were at one with the conductor.

The fourth piece was the US premiere of the Cello Concerto by Anders Hillborg, composed in 2020 on a co-commission with the DSO and six other orchestras in Europe and Canada. The concerto was written for cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, who performed it here. The piece is described by Hillborg’s publisher as “possessing intimacy of scoring, and a direct and pared-back simplicity of expression.” That is certainly truth in advertising, but unfortunately the end result is a piece that has less direction than one might hope for, being most memorable for its stasis. No question, it's a fascinating soundscape that contains glacier-like suspensions along with some really intriguing sounds and sensations... but hopes for more forward direction in the music went essentially unfulfilled. That a particular mood was created is certainly undeniable, but that mood was akin to a trance in many spots (several instances of agitation notwithstanding). All things considered, at nearly 30 minutes in duration the concerto seems to lack the requisite musical material, essentially being too lengthy to keep the listener's interest fully engaged all the way through.

As for Altstaedt's playing, it could hardly be faulted. He sustained the long cantabile lines admirably, while doing his very best to bring the music and the special effects across in convincing fashion. The soloist’s encore – a movement from Jean-Baptiste Barriere’s G major Sonata for two cellos – was intriguing in that Alstaedt was joined by Wei Yu, the DSO’s principal cellist. Their performance was like a polished jewel.