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Mostly French Delights

by B.A. Nilsson on August 16, 2012

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood, Aug. 5

Nothing like the dramatic tolling of an offstage bell to suggest something bad is about to happen. We’d been dodging rainfall all afternoon, and the sounds of the accompanying gusts rattling the Tanglewood trees was a nice aural backdrop for the low brass intoning the “Dies Irae.”

Fortunately, the worst that occurred was only what each imaginative audience member assigned to the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath with which Berlioz ended his Symphonie Fantastique, itself a killer finish to an afternoon of Boston Symphony virtuosity.

With the ageless Lorin Maazel on the podium, the program comprised three contrasting works, although the opening piece, Michael Gandolfi’s Night Train to Perugia, shared with the Berlioz a skilled and innovative use of orchestral textures.

This was the world premiere of the short work, which the composer describes in terms of a train journey and sub-atomic particles. While the piece doesn’t ape the fabulously evocative journey of Villa-Lobos’s Caipira train, we hear similar textural notes as the vehicle travels its track, hissing and honking. When, towards the end, strings and brass threaten one another with complementary themes, Prokofiev’s Russian Overture is recalled. But these are just some familiar suggestions to characterize a charming piece in an original voice.

Debate goes on about the originality of the compositional voice of Camille Saint-Saëns (see the previous Bard Music Festival review), but there’s no question that he turned out highly accomplished works that are always delights to the ear. His Piano Concerto No. 5 is subtitled “Egyptian” because it was written in Cairo and sports, in its second movement, sounds and melody the composer borrowed from his travels.

Soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet understand that the work is also a showpiece—Saint-Saëns was an amazing virtuoso—and wasn’t bashful about swimming in the sheer enjoyment of pulling off the tricky passagework with which the work is laced.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

For the second half, the Berlioz, about as programmatic a work as they come. The young French composer had gotten a huge crush on an English actress, and wrote an “I’ll-show-you” piece that depicted in five movements a laudanum-laced artist’s descent through love to madness. It won her heart, and they were married (however unhappily) three years after the work’s premiere.

It was masterful, with Maazel balancing the excellent solo-voice offerings against a well-crafted vision of the piece as a balanced whole. It’s written to excite a crowd. It worked.