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AT TANGLEWOOD: BSO displays French connection, Joshua Bell excels in Saint-Saëns

The orchestra’s longstanding affinity for Ravel’s music and their depth of experience with other French composers’ works is unmatched.

Lenox – Opening Tanglewood’s 135th season on Friday, July 8, Joshua Bell joined conductor Jacques Lacombe and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a program of Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Prokofiev. The Koussevitzky Music Shed was packed on Friday night, thanks in part to the impossibly youthful violinist, Joshua Bell, who continues to draw large crowds a quarter-century after his first Tanglewood appearance. Lacombe may not be a household name just yet, but he’s certainly a rising star, and the reasons for this were made manifest throughout Friday’s program (also during Saturday’s, when Lacombe’s reading — and the BSO’s performance — of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” charmed, mesmerized, and amazed everyone.)

The orchestra warmed up on Friday evening with Ravel’s delightful seven-minute paean to Iberia, “Alborada del gracioso.” Here Ravel indulges in the kind of fanciful exoticism that informed his earlier “Rapsodie espagnole” and the later gypsy-themed “Tzigane.” But in “Alborada,” he flirts specifically with imaginary Andalusian styles. With these and other whimsical depictions, Ravel set the stage for his own “Bolero” and helped define the sound of Spanish music in popular culture.

The potent cocktail of his distinctive harmonies and sparkling orchestrations makes “Alborada” instantly recognizable as a work of Ravel. The BSO’s performance of the piece under Lacombe’s baton was precise and elegantly detailed but also vivacious and at times even a bit wild.

jacques Lacombe conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, during the opening of the BSO's summer Tanglewood residency. Photo: Hilary Scott
jacques Lacombe conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, during the opening of the BSO’s summer Tanglewood residency. Photo: Hilary Scott

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has a long history of championing Maurice Ravel’s entire oeuvre, starting in 1913, when Karl Muck first led the orchestra in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite.” The orchestra’s longstanding affinity for Ravel’s music and their depth of experience with other French composers’ works is unmatched. Ask any of the French conductors who’ve worked with the BSO, and they’ll tell you that no orchestra in the world plays Ravel better.

As a showpiece for virtuoso violinists, Camille Saint-Saëns’s third violin concerto meets all the requirements of Romantic style violin showmanship. Technically speaking, though, it isn’t among the most difficult pieces in Joshua Bell’s repertoire. Still, it does present interpretive challenges that less experienced musicians often find daunting.

On Friday evening, Joshua Bell’s performance of the Saint-Saëns concerto was spectacular on all levels, partly on account of his famously impeccable technique. But even the most fleet-fingered violinist faces interpretive challenges with this piece, and Bell delivers the kind of performance you’d expect from a guy who released a CD called “Romance of the Violin.” He’s always been at home with Romantic period music, and this was evident in every note he played from Saint-Saëns.

And then there’s the matter of Bell’s tone. He’s famous for this, too, and it’s not only because he plays a ten-million-dollar Stradivarius. Rather, he plays a ten-million-dollar Stradivarius because he knows as well as anyone in the world how to get the sweetest tone from his instrument.

Like other soloists, Bell memorizes almost everything he plays. But when breaking in a new piece, he likes to keep the sheet music nearby, and that’s what he did on Friday night. Funny thing is, he hardly glanced at his music stand, even while he turned the pages.

For most of us, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 is difficult to follow on the first (and second) listen. It’s also notoriously difficult to play. Which means BSO musicians relish the opportunity to perform it, especially under the baton of a Prokofiev specialist like Jacques Lacombe who has memorized the score. And when they do, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 becomes a great deal easier to follow. Why? Because a technically precise performance reveals nuanced details we would otherwise never perceive, and those details — when rendered with exquisite care — are what gives the piece its power and timeless appeal. Does this mean an imprecise performance will fall flat and leave us all in the dark, disappointed, dazed, and confused? Perhaps, but we’ll probably never know, because we’ll never hear it that way from the BSO.


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