Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, MacMillan and Roussel at Symphony Hall – 4 Stars

I haven’t been to the Symphony in what feels like ages, and it will hardly surprise anyone who knows me that I chose a largely French program from the many tempting offerings this winter. I’m an avid Francophile, and am happy to say that last week’s concert did not disappoint.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect of conductor Stephane Deneve, who made his debut with the BSO earlier this year at Carnegie Hall: The concert received mixed reviews, some of which claimed that Deneve’s occasional lack of precision and penchant towards more raucous pieces seemed to make for a bit of a bull-in-a-china-shop experience. I found no such fault whatsoever during Thursday’s concert. On the whole, Deneve’s conducting was as sensitive and exact as it was animated and exuberant. This sensitivity was especially evident in the standout performance of the evening, Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, “Egyptian” a piece led by soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet that is by turns quiet and slow, lush and colorful, and vigorous and romantic. Deneve urged the orchestra agilely alongside Thibaudet’s deft and delicate playing, which was flawless. Although it’s a technically challenging concerto, Thibaudet’s performance seemed effortless: Insouciance is a French word for a reason. His elegant and restrained phrasing brought vividly to life the sound of the waves, details of a Nile scene, and Spanish and Middle Eastern influences that Saint-Saens’s piece evokes all at once. Of course, he received a standing ovation, and not a few shouts. (Yes, people shout at the symphony.)

Deneve certainly does seem to favor richly layered and dynamic music, as evinced by his other choices. I heard a couple of music students describe the program as “intense.” I found the inclusion of MacMillan’s “Three Interludes” from his 2007 opera “The Sacrifice” a bit out of place. Deneve explained at the podium after intermission, and also in the program notes, that he learned to appreciate Scottish music during his seven-year tenure as the music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and he felt that the “roughness” of MacMillan’s compositions had a lot in common with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and with Roussel’s ballet. Apart from the use of cellos and basses to create dramatic tension, Deneve’s comparison seems tangential at best. Perhaps he let his nostalgia for the highlands get the better of him? I don’t know much at all about MacMillan, so I was happy to learn about something new, but the “interludes” did little for me. The Overture to Berlioz’s “les Franc-juges” was much more affecting. Romantic and melodic, the sweetness and fluttering of the flutes and clarinets is undercut by the roughness of the strings. Roussel’s Suite No. 2, the second half of his ballet Bacchus and Ariadne, was equally beautiful. While the MacMillan piece sounded a little disorganized at times, the many dense layers that make up the frenzied Bacchanalian dance at the end of Roussel’s ballet were perfectly articulated and built towards a spectacular crescendo that left Deneve red in the face.

It was a surprising and interestingly curated program, where softer, Romantic flourishes combined with harder, Machine-age edge.