The BSO's first concert of 2013 featured one of its best guest conductors, but not one likely to be available for its music directorship. Alan Gilbert already leads a major orchestra — the New York Philharmonic. But his Boston visits are always exciting, and this latest concert was no exception. Unfortunately, Gilbert's soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the Georgian (not Atlanta!) violinist Lisa Batiashvili, has suffered a back injury and was replaced by the Lithuanian virtuoso Julian Rachlin.
The rest of the program was so fresh and compelling, it was hard to see the function of Tchaikovsky's warhorse other than to lure an audience that might have been less eager to hear only 20th-century music. I admired Rachlin's largely understated approach and the fillips of Slavic syncopation he gave the beloved tunes. The audience cheered. Yet I wish the performance seemed about more than just the sound of his 1704 Strad.
The concerto was preceded by a kind of concerto for the whole orchestra, Henri Dutilleux's 1964 Métaboles, in which each of its five interlocking movements metamorphoses into a different little tone poem. "Incantatoire" emphasizes Stravinsky-like winds (à la the solemn Symphonies of Winds Instruments). "Linéaire" puts low and luscious string harmonies on luxurious display (Gilbert commendably dividing first and second violins antiphonally). The climactic "Obsessionnel" includes edgier brass outbursts. Dutilleux's title refers the metamorphosis of certain insects. The fourth movement, "Torpide," slowly unravels the most insect-like sounds in delicate percussion. The final, spirited "Flamboyant" pulls everything together. There's much Stravinsky and Messiaen, but it's finally authentic Dutilleux, and a pleasure to hear performed with such intricate attention.
The second half of the program was even more scintillating. One hears Stravinsky's post-war masterpiece Symphony in Three Movements more at the ballet (thanks to George Balanchine's stunning choreography) than in the concert hall. The last BSO subscription performance was in 1981. Electricity seemed to shoot from Gilbert's baton. The tense and terrifyingly military Allegro and Finale (with pianist Vytas Baksys) bracketed an equally galvanizing though intimately tender middle-movement Andante, featuring harp (Jessica Zhou), flute (Elizabeth Rowe), and oboe (John Ferrillo).
Gilbert then pounced into Ravel's La Valse, maintaining paradoxically unsettling balances between languid glamour and the rush to catastrophe (the date is 1920), between lilting Viennese suavity (sweeping waltzes) and the nightmare abyss that ultimately reveals itself under the glitter.
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