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Triumphantly, Colin Davis finds familiar surroundings

After 19 years, a stalwart gets a rousing BSO homecoming

There was a hero's welcome last night when Sir Colin Davis returned to the Boston Symphony podium after an absence of 19 years. Between 1967 and 1984 he was a major figure in the life of the orchestra; he was heavily courted to become music director, and he did accept the position of principal guest conductor.

Now 76, Sir Colin remains pink of cheek, bright of eye, and spry of foot. About the only visible difference in his appearance is that his hair has now gone completely white -- and he apparently hasn't lost a single strand of it. Despite his senior citizen disclaimers in a recent interview, he's got plenty of "juice" left, which is a good thing, because few symphonies require more of it than Elgar's Second.

Davis began with a delightful Haydn symphony (no. 72) that the orchestra has never played before. Although cast in the traditional four movements, the work is more a concerto for orchestra or an entertaining divertimento than a conventional symphony. Each movement brings a different instrumental configuration to the fore in captivating and surprising ways. Four horns sound the jaunty opening, and there are later solos for violin, cello, bass, and flute, and pleasant combinations of oboes, bassoons and horns.

These star turns were all superbly executed by Malcolm Lowe, Jules Eskin, Edwin Barker, and Elizabeth Ostling, respectively, and the four hornists -- James Sommerville, Daniel Katzen, Jay Wadenpfuhl, and Jonathan Menkis -- offered loads of expert fun. Barker's tricky solo was especially nimble and well-tuned, and behind it you could hear the charming prickle of Mark Kroll's harpsichord.

In Britain the music of Elgar is a national monument that Davis has been careful to avoid visiting too often.

One of the supreme musical highlights in this concertgoer's life was his 1982 performance of Elgar's oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius" -- his first, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra's as well.

Maybe this reluctance to become an Elgarian is because the music lies too close to the conductor's own nature in its mixture of joviality, uncertainty, nobility, and inwardness, of the need to believe and the need to question. Certainly the performance of the Second Symphony was magnificent, both in its public face and in its private searchings. Some conductors are obsessed with tempo; Davis realizes that the real issue is rhythm and the structures it accrues.

With this, an insight into musical character, and the orchestra's full tonal splendor, he unfolds emotion both with subtlety and with primal immediacy.

Only about 40 BSO players from the earlier Davis era remain, but all of those who were onstage last night played their hearts out for him. The opening hero's welcome was surpassed by the standing ovation at the close. The conductor was repeatedly called back by the bravos of the audience and the stomp of approving feet in the orchestra.

(Boston Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, guest conductor; At Symphony Hall, last night; Repeats today and tomorrow night.)

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