Opening with Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 1 was a bold stroke for the OSO, and it worked out well. The at-first-barely audible string pizzicato, and its subsequent ingenious passing between sections was deftly handled. The work as a whole was marked by radical contrasts; long, slow singing sections interrupted by thunderous crashes from percussion or brass, and then a sudden, quiet reversion into subtlety. It demanded intensely rhythmic ensemble playing to navigate the tempestuous, moody texture, and a focused approach was necessary to keep interesting the sometimes abstruse tonal (or atonal) musical languages of this mid 20th century piece. The OSO certainly had the skills to navigate all those challenges.
Olivier Messaien's Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds) was a startling change. Consisting of winds, percussion and piano, it was patterned after the songs of 18 birds from around the world. Messaien, a bird-lover himself, could clearly articulate not only the bird song but convey images of hopping, dancing, flitting and strange avian rituals that only a bird-enthusiast and accomplished composer could so convey. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin had an interesting role: pouncing, plunking, thundering and whispering delicacy were all called for. The dizzying amount of coordination between the percussion and winds, especially at such a sustained and rapid-fire pace, was amazing to behold. Precision, rapt concentration and lightning execution were all present in this stunning, boiling euphony.
The second half opened with Liszt's Todtentanz for Piano and Orchestra. The opening, menacing theme, at which death seems to stride the world, immense and unchallenged, gave way to scintillating brilliance on the part of Hamelin. Suddenly he displays a jolly, crisp and brilliant staccato, firing away exacting glissandi one after another. He then plays with such cantabile tenderness in the quasi-fugal portion, a feeling like retiring into death's cool embrace. The astonishing amount of technical accomplishment alone, to say nothing of his artistry--Hamelin had every bit of the chops and then some; for much of this piece he was a one-man orchestra.
Ravel's Bolero was the grand finale. The bassoon in particular rendered the theme splendid and saucy. It was great fun to see an army of violinists and violists holding their axes like small guitars, plucking away. The piccoli had some difficulty with the doublings, but it was a small blemish. Kudos to the snare drummer and his rock-solid rhythm, the only player to hit every single beat from the first to the last. The percussion section and winds in particular were spectacular all evening; it is a joy to listen to such top-notch performers night after night with the OSO.