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music review

Denève, BSO bring Paris to Boston

Conductor Stéphane Denève performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.Hilary Scott

There’s nothing like 1920s Paris to take your mind off 2015 Boston, winter edition. Thursday at Symphony Hall, French guest conductor Stéphane Denève led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a quartet of harmonically adventurous and often jazzy works that made headlines in Paris in the early 1920s. Three of them debuted in the City of Light; three of them also started out as ballets. Under Denève’s baton, all four danced. By the end of the evening, the snow outside seemed to be melting away.

For “Pulcinella,” which premiered at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1920, Igor Stravinsky drew on music by Pergolesi and other 18th-century Italian composers to create a ballet about the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte character. Even the 1922 concert suite, which the BSO played here, exudes an outdoor-market energy. Denève’s genial performance featured a swaying Serenata (to a siciliana rhythm), a whirling Tarantella, a brass-blasting Toccata, a stately Gavotte, and a sweet Menuetto that was almost an aubade.


Stravinsky’s spiky dissonance notwithstanding, “Pulcinella” pays tribute to classical forms, so it made an ideal opener. The next piece, Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, is also nostalgic — so mellow, in fact, that Parisians found it too conservative when it premiered in 1923. The opening Andantino’s long, sad threnody seems to conjure World War I, and after a demonic dance of a Scherzo, there’s sober resignation in the closing Moderato. Canadian violinist James Ehnes gave a measured, laid-back reading, offering mystery rather than intensity. His encore, the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, was sublimely elegant.

After intermission, Symphony Hall turned into a jazz boîte. Inspired by Harlem dance clubs and Paul Whiteman, Darius Milhaud’s “La création du monde” got its premiere from the Paris-based Ballets Suédois in 1923. Milhaud’s is a quirky view of the world’s origin: Chaos is a jazz fugue, and the creation of man and woman is represented by a cakewalk. Led by Adam Pelandini’s sinuous saxophone, the 18-piece ensemble rocked. Denève’s tempos may have been moderate, but his rhythms were crisp and clear.


The closer, Francis Poulenc’s “Les biches,” was also premiered by the Ballets Russes, in Monte Carlo in 1924, before going on to Paris that same year. The title means “The Does,” as in “ladies”; the ballet by Bronislava Nijinska was set in a drawing room with a single blue sofa. Denève has recorded the full score, but here he programmed just the concert suite from 1940, whose five tantalizing movements include a circusy Rondeau, a piquant Adagietto, and a “Rag-Mazurka” that’s more of a galloping tarantella. The BSO had never played this music before. I hope it doesn’t wait 90 years to play it again.

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