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Stirring Debussy from Alan Gilbert and Beethoven from Joshua Bell at the BSO

Alan Gilbert conducts Bernard Rands, Debussy, and Beethoven featuring violinist Joshua Bell at Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall on April 14, 2022, in Boston.Winslow Townson

This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program, under guest conductor Alan Gilbert, didn’t nod to Passover or Easter, but it did offer an enticing trio: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Joshua Bell; Debussy’s “La mer”; and the world premiere of 88-year-old English composer Bernard Rands’s “Symphonic Fantasy in One Movement,” which the composer describes as “a response to Jean Sibelius’s one-movement Symphony No. 7.” The new piece was a bit of a challenge; the familiar works were as special as you could wish.

Rands, who was present for Thursday’s premiere, was born in Sheffield, England, but he grew up in Wales, moved to the United States in 1975, and now lives in Chicago. His “Symphonic Fantasy,” a joint commission of the BSO and BBC Radio 3, may have been triggered by Sibelius’s last symphony (which the BSO performed last week under Anna Rakitina), but as he explained in a program note, the 20-minute piece has its own unique sonata form in that the exposition, development, and recapitulation are all mini-sonatas in themselves.


This wasn’t easy to grasp in practice. A soft initial rumbling in the timpani and double basses led to a theme in the cellos that was soon cut off, and that set the pattern. The tempo was moderate throughout; strings, winds, and brass acted as choirs in a kind of call and response, and tubular bells sounded a continual warning note. Fragments would coalesce and swell in Sibelius-like fashion, only to dissipate. Toward the end oscillating strings seemed to promise a statement, but that too was truncated by a final brass outburst.

“La mer” is often described as an “Impressionist” work, but its three movements — “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” “Play of Waves,” and “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” — don’t represent Debussy’s visual or aural impression of the ocean so much as an evocation of it, what he heard and saw in his imagination as he composed in landlocked Burgundy while recalling summer holidays in Cannes. It’s a global ocean: Debussy chose for the cover of the first published score a version of Katsushika Hokusai’s 1831 print “The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa,” and you can detect pentatonic scales and the influence of the Javanese gamelan.


Back in March 2018, Gilbert led the BSO in a vivid, extroverted performance of Debussy’s “Jeux.” “La mer” went along similar lines, its clarity abetted by his antiphonal seating of the first and second violins, and by exquisite solo playing. Dawn was dark and tranquil but never misty; sunlight began to assert itself as the 12 cellos (Debussy was hoping for 16!), divided into four choirs, sang out. Gilbert didn’t stint the composer’s numerous tempo nuances; the sea surged to a powerful climax at noon, the play of waves bordered on roughhousing at times, the dialogue between wind and ocean incorporated seagulls. We got harsh sunlight, strong gusts, the water’s glistening surface but also its dark depths.

Hard as it is to believe now, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was not an instant success at its 1806 premiere; it didn’t become a concert fixture until a 12-year-old Joseph Joachim performed it in London in 1844 with an orchestra conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. The piece opens with five timpani strokes, and that martial five-note motif pervades the rest of the Allegro non troppo, along with a few disconcerting D-sharps, perhaps a reminder that Napoleon was still ravaging Europe. For the most part, however, the concerto is grand and noble, soft and sweet, with a hymn for the Larghetto second movement and a high-spirited Rondo: Allegro to finish.


The last time I heard Bell play the concerto was almost 10 years ago to the day, April 15, 2012, when he was making his Boston debut as the music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. He seemed more ardent this time out, swaying in synch with Gilbert, soaring into the stratosphere with depth and body, yearning in the G-minor theme that turns up midway through the Allegro non troppo, heart-on-sleeve in the Larghetto, teasing and playful in the finale. Gilbert counterpointed him with forward propulsion and firm timpani in a militant Allegro non troppo; his Larghetto eschewed sentiment, and his finale took off, humorous in its hunting horns, boisterous in its rollicking country dance. The lateness of the hour precluded an encore, despite vociferous pleading from the audience.


Alan Gilbert, conducting

At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Remaining performances: April 15–16. Tickets $20-$176. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.