Dutoit est mort, vive Lacombe.
Well, conductor Charles Dutoit isn’t actually dead. But he might as well be to the classical music world. In the past few months, the perennial Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductor was accused of sexual misconduct and assault by multiple women. Following the first wave of allegations, in December, the BSO quickly canceled his scheduled appearance. Thus, Thursday evening at Symphony Hall saw the subscription debut of Canadian maestro Jacques Lacombe, a repeat Tanglewood guest who was announced as Dutoit’s replacement a few weeks ago.
Even without the avalanche of allegations against Dutoit, Lacombe would have been a treat for this all-French program. First of all, unlike Dutoit, Lacombe didn’t constantly grunt like an ill-tempered troll on the podium. (Every time I saw Dutoit conduct, it was audible from wherever I was sitting.) And more important, in the evening’s second half, Lacombe treated Symphony Hall to the most engrossing and dynamic rendition of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” that I’ve ever seen performed.
Along with “The Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka,” the piece belongs to the category of ballets that are now more frequently presented in concert than with dancers. Euphoric crescendos make up a significant portion of the score, and without careful attention they can lose their impact and become repetitive. But Lacombe’s direction gave unique form to each figure, with the conductor stepping lightly and gesturing gracefully. The music danced like the ballet it was.
The orchestra’s sonic bouquet was in full flower. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus poured forth misty, shifty wordless tableaux, assistant concertmaster Tamara Smirnova spun out acutely lonesome passages. Wind solos were scintillating, especially Robert Sheena’s English horn, Cynthia Meyers’s piccolo, and Elizabeth Rowe’s flute, which hitched and sighed as if overcome with the kind of love that makes your heart shake. The music was rife with unmoored ecstasy, with a final wild, gasping bacchanale that left no question as to how Daphnis and Chloé celebrated their reunion. (Happy Valentine’s Day, Boston.)
The first half began with a color-washed account of Debussy’s Sarabande and “Danse (Tarentelle Styrienne),” two short pieces orchestrated by Ravel. Then BSO artist in residence Jean-Yves Thibaudet joined the orchestra for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand. Lacombe shaped the orchestra’s initial rise from the depths with subtlety, and when the piano entered, the melody leapt from the lowest notes to a high chord like a fish saluting the sun. Thibaudet slurred through the initial cadenza with style, and later de-emphasized higher notes so they landed with serenity and clarity. As an encore, he quipped, “I’m going to play with both hands now,” before dedicating Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” to the children who perished in Wednesday’s Florida school shooting.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall. Repeats Feb. 17. www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. 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.