Ludovic Morlot conducts the BSO in a concert of Harbison, Ravel, and Mahler
Like last week, this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program - again featuring guest conductor Ludovic Morlot - had former music director James Levine’s fingerprints all over it. There was a substantial modernist first course (John Harbison’s Symphony No. 4, restarting the BSO’s two-season survey of his symphonies), then, appropriate for the day after Thanksgiving, rich leftovers: Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé’’ Suite No. 2, which the BSO played in 2010, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, heard at Tanglewood last summer. But Morlot - a former BSO assistant conductor, now music director of the Seattle Symphony - put his own stamp on the music, bringing brisk, sharp-edged energy in place of Levine’s expansive grandeur.
Harbison’s 2003 Symphony No. 4, was, in part, an attempt to work through what he called the “hangover’’ of his operatic adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.’’ In fact, the whole symphony feels like workings-through, of influences, forms, processes, difficulties. The opening “Fanfare’’ snowballs through the Jazz Age, swallowing up new bits of syncopation on each rotation, suddenly melting away. A fragmentary “Intermezzo’’ still flickers with big band color (especially in its deft use of soft and muted brass); the central “Scherzo’’ completes the turn from jazz to fully stylized syncopation, angular and clean in a Stravinskian style.
Everything is highly motivic, short patterns assembled and reassembled; even the fourth-movement “Threnody’’ expresses its foreboding via compact blocks. The finale jump-cuts between conflicting rhythmic patterns, never quite making the transition from uphill to downhill, a climax of orchestral mass more than momentum.
The opening and closing movements had crisp force; the quieter movements, especially the piecemeal transparency of the “Intermezzo,’’ were more skittish and hesitant. In slower, more fluid sections, Morlot’s beat could get dangerously elaborate, leaving players to decide whether to follow wrist or baton. But once each phrase was underway, the sound shimmered. And both Morlot and the orchestra were in their element in music of virtuosic horsepower.
Such was the “Daphnis’’ suite, all burbling atmosphere and widescreen impact; the “Danse générale’’ was especially tight, razor-sharp accents, a dazzlingly precise laser show. The Mahler, too, excelled in extroversion, the klezmer accents in the third movement volubly rich, the finale barreling toward major-key triumph with assertive hedonism. Mahler’s peroration, like Thanksgiving dinner, ideally errs on the side of overindulgence.