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BSO assistant leads first-rate show

Over the years, the BSO has tried to identify and nurture the next generation of conducting talent by bringing on assistant conductors to work with the orchestra and its music director. And there has been at least one brilliant success story to point out: Robert Spano, who today leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, got his start as an assistant conductor at the BSO in the early 1990s.

Last night in Symphony Hall, the orchestra gave one of its current assistant conductors, Ludovic Morlot, a chance to shine. A French musician first trained as a violinist, Morlot is not unknown locally . He made his BSO conducting debut in April 2005 and led the orchestra twice this summer at Tanglewood. His career has also been gathering impressive momentum outside of Boston.

As was apparent from last night's opening work, Vaughan Williams's ``Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis," Morlot's growing experience has translated into a sense of poise on the podium and a clear, unmannered technique. The Vaughan Williams might have seemed a curious choice of curtain-raisers for an otherwise all-Russian program, but the work came off well, with the BSO strings sounding beautifully dark, rich, and velvety.

The next work was Shostakovich's explosive First Cello Concerto. Stalin had died by the time this piece was written, but the composer had suffered mightily under his thumb and he bore those memories heavily until his own death in 1975. His music, so often heard through the prism of his tragic times, has the power to electrify audiences in a way few composers of the last 50 years can.

Interestingly, James Levine has largely steered clear of Shostakovich during his time at the BSO, professing respect for his music but not the absolute devotion and sympathy he feels he must have to serve a composer well. In Levine's stead, visiting guest conductors, and in this case Morlot, have been given free rein to program Shostakovich as they wish. And yet, whether because of Morlot's interpretive choices or because of the composer's generally peripheral status in the BSO's current pantheon, last night's performance was less idiomatic than one might have hoped for.

All the notes were there, naturally, but the sound was too pretty. The woodwinds lacked that extra measure of sardonic sneer, the strings could have used more acid bite, and the brass didn't quite deliver the sense of stentorian menace that drives this music to its chilling extremes. Fortunately, the cellist Lynn Harrell was an ardent soloist, and earned a grateful ovation from the audience .

Everything came together for the concluding work, excerpts from Prokofiev's ``Romeo and Juliet." In future years, Morlot may come to lead this work with a more sweeping sense of drama, but in the meantime he showed very solid instincts and an impressive ability to communicate them to the orchestra. Prokofiev's dazzling score came through in all its technicolored brilliance.

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