The Boston Symphony Orchestra has long enjoyed a warm rapport with the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, who returned to the podium on Thursday night with the air of the old friend who strolls into your house, tosses his coat on the couch, and asks what’s for dinner. In this case, during the night’s applause Dutoit could be seen wading into the bass section to schmooze with players, and, at one point, even yanking English horn player Robert Sheena up by the elbow for a well-deserved solo bow.
The program, the first of two Dutoit will lead on this visit, was an all-French affair bookended by Berlioz choral works, the second of which was the composer’s massive “Te Deum.” In between, arriving like a sorbet course for the ears, was “Timbres, Espace, Mouvement” by Henri Dutilleux, whose centenary the BSO is celebrating this season with performances of several works.
The BSO’s honoring of this esteemed French composer, who died only in 2013 (at the age of 97), is a welcome tribute to a seminal 20th-century musical voice, one whose BSO association dates back to the Charles Munch era. In fact, “Timbres, Espace, Mouvement” (or “Sounds, Space, Movement”) was dedicated to Munch’s memory. It was also inspired by Van Gogh’s celebrated painting “The Starry Night,” and it attempts to translate, as Dutilleux put it, the work’s “cosmic and mystical dimension” into an experience in sound.
There is something sweetly droll in the notion of a cerebral French high-modernist training his penetrating gaze on a work that adorns untold numbers of college dorm rooms. But Dutilleux’s extraordinarily precise timbral imagination eschews cliche and leaves you eager to examine Van Gogh’s canvas with fresh eyes. To achieve a sonic equivalent to that work’s visual spaciousness, Dutilleux radically pares down his string section, jettisoning violins and violas so as to leave a wide gap between the understory of cellos and basses and the bright treble sheen of the woodwinds and brasses.
There is also no reductive literalism in Dutilleux’s version of impressionist tone painting, though one may still plausibly listen for swirls of sound like those in Van Gogh’s sky. The celesta, too, glitters tellingly in the orchestral firmament. On Thursday, Dutoit led confidently and drew out a performance that was attentive to both atmosphere and coloristic detail.
The night opened with Berlioz’s “Resurrexit,” a score that began its life as a portion of the composer’s “Messe Solennelle,” an early work Berlioz claimed to have burned. (Happily, he also evidently played Max Brod to his own Kafka, as an autograph manuscript of the full mass nonetheless turned up in a Belgian church in 1992.) Dutoit attacked this brief but dramatic curtain-raiser with unrelenting verve.
On the far end of the evening was the huge “Te Deum,” for tenor soloist (here, the veteran Paul Groves), double chorus, children’s chorus, organ, and orchestra. The fine young singers of Voices Boston joined the ranks of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, its members assembled seven rows deep on risers ascending almost to the base of the Symphony Hall organ pipes.
The post-John Oliver TFC, on this occasion prepared by conductor James Burton, showed itself still capable of delighting in the manner to which BSO audiences are gratefully accustomed. But it also had more than a few patchy moments over the course of this program, an unevenness that was notable enough to make one sincerely hope that the search for Oliver’s permanent successor is concluded soon.
Nevertheless, in the climactic “Judex crederis” — which Berlioz proudly described as “without doubt, my most grandiose creation” — the singers rose to the occasion as Dutoit unleashed bracing floods of choral sound. Fortunately, he also did not neglect to savor the improbably tender moments that turn up throughout this score, often in movements designated simply as “prayers.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Friday and Saturday)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy Eichler.