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MUSIC REVIEW

Lahav Shani makes powerful Symphony Hall debut

Leading the BSO and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the Israeli guest conductor eschewed a baton for vigorous body language Thursday

Lahav Shani led the BSO in Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances on Thursday.Robert Torres

This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program, under Israeli guest conductor Lahav Shani, has the very familiar — Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” — sandwiching the slightly less familiar in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with French soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The totally unfamiliar is Shani, who led the BSO at Tanglewood in 2017 but was making his Symphony Hall debut Thursday. To judge by the quality of the pieces he chose and the excellence of everyone’s execution, he shouldn’t be a stranger.

Prokofiev wrote his Symphony No. 1 in the shadow of the burgeoning Russian Revolution; the planned November 1917 premiere had to be postponed to the following April. The 15-minute work is revolutionary in its own way, harking back to Haydn and Mozart, combining impish wit with adventurous harmonies. Two decades later, Prokofiev expanded the third-movement Gavotte into the “Departure of the Guests” number for his ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” but really the entire symphony should dance.

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It did under Shani, who’s currently the Israel Philharmonic’s music director but will be moving on to the Munich Philharmonic in 2026. Eschewing a baton, he conducts with vigorous body language; his Prokofiev was gracious and detailed but never sluggish. The relaxed opening Allegro caught the humor of the moment when the full orchestra aggrandizes the composer’s humble tune; the nervously pacing Larghetto anticipated Romeo’s pacing beneath Juliet’s balcony. Sharp accents marked the 90-second Gavotte, along with due attention to the composer’s “Poco meno mosso” after the trio. The Molto vivace finale, complete with Prokofiev’s surprise exposition repeat, was fleet and explosive.

Saint-Saëns wrote his final piano concerto in Luxor and Cairo in 1896, and he was the soloist in the Paris premiere that same year. The piece is popularly known as the “Egyptian”: The Andante second movement is said to incorporate a Nubian love song that the composer heard from boatmen as he sailed on the Nile, and then at the end some hear whispers from frogs and Nile crickets. The Molto allegro finale has been thought to represent the pumping of ship engines.

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Guest conductor Lahav Shani led pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the BSO in Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 5 on Thursday.Robert Torres

Thibaudet was the soloist when the BSO last did the Fifth in Symphony Hall, in 2012. Now 61, he’s a year older than Saint-Saëns was when the composer played the concerto’s premiere, but he’s still in full command of the work’s dazzling pyrotechnics. His Fifth is a cogent affair, not as expansive as some, but with its own rhapsodic poetry. The Allegro animato’s chant-like first theme both chimed and lulled; the second subject was turbulent, questioning, the coda rippling moonlight. In the “Quasi recitativo” sections of the Andante, Thibaudet suggested a call to prayer, and his huge, slow chords might have been Luxor’s towering temple columns. His singing line held the movement’s Spanish, Middle Eastern, and Asian touches together; Shani underlined it all with a dance pulse. The rollicking, circusy finale found those engines pumping hard, but it was the jaunty second-subject march and Thibaudet’s fireworks that brought the piece home.

“Symphonic Dances” premiered with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1941; it was Rachmaninoff’s final major composition before his untimely death in 1943. The first of its three sections, “Non Allegro,” is pervaded by an incessant falling three-note minor-key figure. The slower middle section includes a solo for alto saxophone; the heartstopping coda draws from the first theme of Rachmaninoff’s disastrously received First Symphony. The Andante con moto is a demented waltz; in the finale Rachmaninoff quotes the plainsong “Dies irae” but opposes that with the “Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi” (“Blessed art thou, O Lord”) from the section of his own “All-Night Vigil” that anticipates Christ’s resurrection. He wrote “Alleluya” at the appropriate place in the score.

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Right from the start, Shani chose to dance with the devil; he went for weight and power rather than speed, and he gave ample room to timpani, bass drum, and tambourine. Ryan Yuré's seductive alto saxophone made for an angelic counterweight, and then the coda was so ethereally phrased, it was as if Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony had gone to heaven. Lush and decadent, Shani’s Andante con moto seemed to look back at the sorrows of World War I and the Russian Revolution; a highlight was the back-and-forth between Amanda Hardy’s oboe and Robert Sheena’s cor anglais. The final dance was all weary beauty until, amid odd echoes of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” the “Dies irae” rang out and then the Orthodox chant processed quietly past in triumph.

The last bar of the score is unclear as to whether the tam-tam is meant to continue vibrating after the rest of the orchestra has cut out. Shani made, I think, the right choice, letting it go on, as if Rachmaninoff were whispering to us from the afterlife.

THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA LED BY LAHAV SHANI

At Symphony Hall, Thursday, Feb. 16. Repeats Feb. 17-18. Tickets $20-$147. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

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



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