As part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s “Music in Changing Times” series, this was the second of two concerts exploring “A Fragile Peace: Between the Wars”. Directed by guest conductor David Robertson, the concert included compositions by Milhaud, Honegger and Ravel.

David Robertson and Boston Symphony players
© Hilary Scott

Milhaud’s La Création du monde is best experienced without attempting to make sense of the work’s title, which seems superfluous to the music. Saxophone and other winds play a major role in this jazz-inflected work and the BSO players certainly rose to the occasion, beginning with lyrical sax passages in the mysterious opening. Robertson turned the piece into its own special adventure, giving vibrant voice to its sometimes unsettled nature while allowing the jazzier sections the full measure of “swing and swagger”. Solo clarinet and horn passages were particularly impressive, along with the dying strains of the flute and saxophone that end the work.

One might think of the delightful Pastorale d’été as Honegger’s way of turning the page on the First World War (likely not realizing how short the respite would be). This 1920 piece is a real charmer, and Robertson placed us in a summer’s glen with warmly enveloping tones: strings shimmering in the sunlight with silky horn solo passages overtop. Little embellishments by the oboe, clarinet and flute proved that Ravel’s Daphnis has no monopoly on “nature sounds” in French music, and their effect was magical. Performed as it was here, it is a perfect little gem.

David Robertson, Inon Barnatan and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

For the program's main work, Inon Barnatan joined the orchestra in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. It's the kind of piece that comes off best when it isn’t over-analyzed, but unfortunately what we experienced in the opening Allegramente movement was akin to a dissection under a microscope. The technical acumen of the musicians could not be faulted, but each measure seemed to have been probed for every last ounce of musical insight. While fascinating in its own way, it was ultimately unconvincing as the natural flow of the music got nearly lost in the interpretive exploration, and the movement ended up sounding too episodic. There was another distraction, too: there appeared to be plenty of room onstage – even mindful of Covid precautions – but curiously, the non-timpani percussionists had been relegated to a side loge in the balcony where the triangle and cymbals couldn’t help but play off the beat. It took some of the effectiveness away from the tutti moments that should have sounded thrilling, but didn’t.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

Happily, the remaining two movements of the concerto were a significant improvement. In the opening of the Adagio assai, Barnatan paced the long, rhapsodic solo piano lines beautifully while Robertson and the orchestra contributed to the hypnotic atmosphere, particularly the bassoon passages along with the famous extended English horn solo which was extraordinarily played.

The final Presto was also impressive, with the musicians playing up the jazzy elements of the music while building the tension inexorably in the middle of the movement. Carnivalesque character was on full display throughout, its sassy treatment washing away any lingering misgivings about the opening movement.

Also part of the BSO program was a work for solo flute by the American composer Marion Bauer, who studied in France and was Nadia Boulanger's first American student. Forgotten Modes, dating from 1938, was played with impressive artistry by BSO associate principal flautist Elisabeth Klein. Of the piece's five short movements, the opening Idyll, the middle Paean and the closing Dithyramb were particularly engaging. Individually, any of them would make for a perfect encore piece in a flute recital.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO NOW video stream