Boston Philharmonic opens with French accents

Benjamin Zander led the Boston Philharmonic in its season opener. Benjamin Zander led the Boston Philharmonic in its season opener. (Koren Reyes/File)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / October 25, 2010

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France — both as the milieu of its native composers and in the imagination of visitors — was the theme of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening program Saturday night. It was in some ways an atypical concert for this ensemble, which seems most at home in the big-boned masterpieces of late Romanticism. A case in point was Debussy’s “La Mer,’’ which the orchestra, now in its 32d season, was playing for the first time.

The performance began with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,’’ which the Philharmonic played with an appropriately bold sound, though it would have benefited from a lighter touch and crisper rhythms. This was followed by a terrific reading of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with Stephen Drury, who played the solo part in a refreshingly straightforward, unaffected way. The outer movements were sharp and graceful; in the slow movement, Drury refused to linger over the seemingly endless opening melody, keeping its long arc intact. Conductor Benjamin Zander kept perfect pace, and there were wonderful solo contributions from Lisa Hennessy on piccolo, trumpeter Eric Berlin, and English horn player Barbara LaFitte.

After intermission came a rare performance of Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,’’ composed in the wake of Debussy’s death. It is one of Stravinsky’s odder works — a darkly hued ritual of mourning that holds emotion squarely at arm’s length. It got off to a rocky start: After less than a minute, the ensemble had disintegrated, and Zander had to begin again. Once restarted, the winds and brasses did an admirable job navigating Stravinsky’s quickly shifting rhythms and textures; Hennessy contributed some inquisitive solos on the alto flute.

The closing “La Mer’’ was, among other things, an index of the BPO’s development. There was a time when the orchestra wouldn’t have been capable of pulling off this piece, which is, in a sense, about the sensuousness of sound; that they did so is a testament to the Philharmonic’s growth. And Zander elicited a lot of pointillistic detail from the score that goes unnoticed in gauzier readings of the piece.

That said, this “La Mer’’ was also somewhat flat and one-dimensional. All its beauty was squarely on the surface — this was an ocean without much depth or mystery, especially in the outer movements. The second movement fared best, the sea’s waves dancing lightly and vigorously. And the piece’s riotous final moments brought the concert to a satisfying end.

David Weininger can be reached at


At: Jordan Hall, Saturday