The following week, Sir Mark Elder returned to lead an intriguing if oddly constructed program with German pianist Lars Vogt, who began with two Debussy solo préludes: the somber "Feuilles mortes" ("Dead Leaves") and the more energetic "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest" ("What the West Wind Saw"), each followed by Elder's friend Colin Matthews's elegant if unsurprising Debussyan orchestration. Then Elder led a rarity, Delius's tone poem Paris: A Nocturne (The Song of a Great City), whose only previous BSO performances were in 1909 and 1941.
The next night, Friday, Elder was to inaugurate a BSO series of shorter, earlier concerts with cocktail reception, in which the conductor would speak to the audience during the concert. Elder likes to talk; last time he was here, he introduced the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony. But couldn't he wait till Friday to do his talking? I'm getting increasingly impatient with the impulse to turn concerts into "educational" experiences — I'd rather be lectured by choice, before the concert starts. And did anyone really need to be informed that Paris: A Nocturne is about nighttime in Paris?
Elder also led mild, detached, unprobing performances of Mozart's sublime C-major Piano Concerto (K.467), with a chilly Vogt, and Richard Strauss's most famous tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks — perhaps not all that merry.
A couple of unfortunate decisions compromised what promised to be a highlight of the Cantata Singers' season-long exploration of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The first part of the program was a beautifully organized and sung anthology of British a cappella choral music: Holst, Elgar, Vaughan Williams (his enchanting Three Shakespeare Songs, with its exquisitely tolling setting of "Full Fathom Five," and his eloquently harmonized version of "Loch Lomond," with sweet-voiced Richard Simpson the expressive tenor soloist). Somber, tripping, velvety, tinselly, these made a convincing argument for this tradition.
Next came a staged version of Vaughan Williams's opera based on J.M. Synge's great one-act tragedy, Riders to the Sea. David Hoose led a haunting musical performance, with full-flowered orchestral playing summoning up the rolling and roiling sea that will claim so many lives, and Peggy Pearson's oboe the primary voice of the sea's hypnotic lure. The fine cast included baritone Brian Church, soprano Lisa Lynch, mezzo-soprano Claire Filer, and, best of all, mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove in the central role of Maurya, the mother who loses all her sons and comes to accept that loss. But Alexandra Borrie's amateurish staging (my heart sank when several characters began miming conversations) had the singers behind the orchestra, shuffling around the Jordan Hall stage, repeatedly adjusting their shawls. For all that some of them, especially Torgove, made every effort to project the words, Synge's rich language rarely carried into the hall. Supertitles would have helped, but given the uninspired staging, a straight concert version would surely have been more effective: the singers in front of the orchestra, projecting, and house lights up so one could follow the libretto. Everyone deserved better.