A conductor’s relationship to music while performing can roughly be mapped on a spectrum, and great conductors exist at all points on that spectrum. At one extreme is Leonard Bernstein, whose Mahler-induced euphoria is preserved in a well-circulated photograph from Tanglewood. At the opposite is Pierre Boulez, whose conducting has been described by writer Tim Page as akin to “a bank teller making change.” Conductors who fall perfectly in the middle are quite rare, but after Wednesday night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra performance, I can say with confidence that Alain Altinoglu is among them.
Bringing an all-French program to his BSO debut, the French conductor moved with a dancer’s grace. He knew exactly when to push forward and when to pull back, when to hang tight and when to let loose. As he conducted the flamboyant opening of the first piece, Berlioz’s madcap “Roman Carnival” Overture, he looked like an expert driver who had been handed the keys to a Ferrari, enjoying every second while always keeping an eye on the road ahead.
French violinist Renaud Capuçon showed off his incredible technical prowess and keen sense of dramatic tension in Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole.” (“Symphonie” is a misnomer; it’s a violin concerto in everything but its name.) Playing from memory, he zipped through capricious arpeggios, simple tango tunes that turned into breathtaking virtuosic variations, and the exaggeratedly sultry flourishes that came of the 19th-century French imagination of Spain. Like the conductor, Capuçon found the perfect blend of solid and fluid for his delivery, and after the flash and fire of the first three movements, the unadorned solo melody of the Andante enchanted in its clarity and gentleness. Applause had already erupted multiple times, and when the first claps started after that fourth movement, Altinoglu looked to the audience to gesture, “Hold that thought.” Orchestra and soloist still had an exuberant triangle-spangled finale to play.
The second half of the concert featured two brief but dense 20th-century pieces. Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 2, “Le Double, brought principal players to the front of the stage to make up a small chamber orchestra, playing different parts from those of the rest of the ensemble. The atmospheric music maintained a feeling of perpetual motion, as rising lines in different instrument groupings tessellated over one another and a harpsichord skittered. Through Dutilleux’s clouds of harmonies and shifting sonic shapes, Altinoglu and the orchestra imbued the labyrinthine score with sublime vitality.
Roussel’s Suite No. 2 from the ballet “Bacchus et Ariane” arose languidly. “Suite” is also a misnomer, as the piece is the entire Act II of the classical myth-based ballet, played without pause. The whirling flutes of Bacchus’s dance transitioned into a lush, swooning interlude to represent Bacchus and Ariadne’s first kiss. Altinoglu shaped a stunning slow build through the final sections, beginning with solo violin and winds to illustrate Ariadne’s dance, culminating in a thumping, raunchy frenzy of whooping horns and crashing cymbals.
Symphony Hall was nearly empty, which was probably a product of scheduling this extra Wednesday performance to make up for Feb. 9’s snowed-out Andris Nelsons-led concert. Here’s hoping Altinoglu will make Boston a regular stop in his guest-conducting itinerary. As for anyone who could have attended but opted for a refund on the Feb. 9 concert: You missed out.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, March 29 (repeats March 30 and 31, April 1). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.