The first two minutes of the finale to Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 have to be some of the greatest kitchen-sink moments in the history of music. They begin with three brilliant major chords on the organ, broken up by exultant ascending figures in the strings. The volume suddenly drops down, and the strings offer up a trembling, sweet melody in C major shot through with the sparkle of a four-hands piano; if you’ve seen “Babe,” you might suddenly have visions of actor James Cromwell softly singing to a piglet. Then the organ busts back in with the full-fortissimo force of the orchestra behind it; the cymbals crash, the horns blare, and the room shakes.
This is the easy part. These two minutes are so wonderfully affecting that it’s rare to hear a performance of this symphony where everything that comes after (and there’s still six minutes to go) doesn’t feel like a letdown. But on Thursday night at Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and organist Thierry Escaich let nothing slide under the baton of guest conductor Alain Altinoglu. The following reflective, sparse statements maintained momentum, the subsequent louder parts seemed to spin on the edge of control, and when it finished in triumph, it felt like a well-earned end to the evening.
The lead-up to that moment didn’t disappoint either. At the top of the symphony, Altinoglu let the first bars resonate; he let the rests breathe. The initial theme was so brisk that the center of the sound destabilized, but the slower section that followed flowed easily. When the main theme appeared in full-bodied strings or a haunting clarinet-horn-trombone combination, it was spacious and satisfying, almost tactile. Until his big finale moment, Escaich treated the organ as an ensemble instrument, weaving tightly into the texture of the orchestra; it was possible to forget that it was even being played until the orchestra faded out while sustained, deep tones continued to rumble out of the back wall.
This is the second BSO appearance for the Paris-born Altinoglu, whose contract at Brussels’s La Monnaie opera house was recently extended through 2025. When he made his debut in 2017, he led a wide-ranging all-French program with elan; this return appearance, also all-French, should secure his post as one of the BSO’s go-to guests for that repertoire in the Nelsons era and beyond.
The concert began with a translucent 20-minute suite of music from Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” arranged by the conductor. The splice points in the score were rarely noticeable, and when they were, the transitions sounded natural. The watery sonorities shimmered, with a strong core and feathery edges; effervescent but not fluffy. The cellos were sinewy but never heavy, bringing to mind snaky tendrils of riverweed. (The BSO has had good luck with guests conducting Debussy this year; Susanna Mälkki’s “La Mer” in October was similarly luminous.)
Poulenc’s Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani, featuring Escaich, was the evening’s weak link by comparison. The piece blended moments of straightforward tonality with episodes of wild chromaticism that came on like sudden mystic frenzies, with BSO assistant timpanist Daniel Bauch providing an essential pulse at the back. Altinoglu could have been more adventurous with the strings’ dynamics and attacks, however; Escaich’s vehement statements often outshone (and drowned out) the orchestra, whose entrances often sounded whiffed. At points, soloist and ensemble seemed of different minds on where the music was going.
Expression, not virtuosity, characterizes the Poulenc concerto’s solo, but as an encore Escaich laid down virtuosity and then some, making the Symphony Hall organ his circus. Through mad calliope rhythms and growling chords, he was ringmaster, acrobat, lion tamer, and clown all in one. The halls buzzed as people tried to identify the piece at intermission, with no consensus; a futile task, it turned out. It was a spectacular improvisation.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 9; repeats Jan. 10 and 11. www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.