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BSO Review

Davis and the BSO go for grandeur

Click the player below to hear a portion of the BSO's Thursday night performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K.503 Allegretto.
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 1, 2009
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The last time Sir Colin Davis was spotted on the Boston Symphony Orchestra podium, he was leading Elgar's massive oratorio "The Dream of Gerontius." Davis is back in town again this weekend, and he has apparently chosen to stick with the theme of choral gigantism. Last night in Symphony Hall, he unveiled the final program of the BSO's subscription season, with Berlioz's colossal Te Deum as its centerpiece.

The Te Deum is not really top-drawer Berlioz, but its sheer size and ambition make its rare appearances something to behold, plus the score itself is not short on powerful and inspired moments. On top of an enormous double chorus, the composer requests a children's chorus of some 600 voices.

Modern performances often just cram as many singers as possible into the space allotted them. In this case, the PALS Children's Chorus, which sang beautifully, was added to the ranks of the robust Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the singers spanned the width of the entire Symphony Hall stage - seven rows deep. The orchestra too, heavy on brass and percussion, including five cymbals, spilled out onto a stage extension. Season finales don't get much more grandly scaled than this.

Davis was completely in his element from the work's opening moments, cuing the massive organ chords with a casual flick of his wrist. Throughout the piece he found tempos that were duly spacious and expansive without becoming ponderous.

This is not the kind of piece where one expects to hear fine details of orchestration, but Davis managed to shape the textures with relative clarity and finesse. In the softer, surprisingly intimate hymnal sections, he drew from the chorus a warm and handsomely blended tone. At the other extreme, the climaxes sounded satisfyingly full, drenching the hall with sound but never overpowering the space. Organist John Finney gave a particularly elegant introduction to the "Tibi omnes" movement, and tenor soloist Matthew Polenzani was lyrically fluid.

On the first half of the program, Imogen Cooper gave a rewarding account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25. It is also, appropriately enough, one of the more grandly scaled of Mozart's piano concertos, and Cooper's eloquent, musically intelligent playing was true to the bold profile of this work without sacrificing suppleness or grace.

After the Berlioz, with Davis seated as an observer on stage, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe ushered this season's three retirees to the podium for their own solo bows. They are violinist Amnon Levy (45 years with the orchestra) and violist Ronald Wilkison (38 years) and the principal harpist Ann Hobson Pilot (40 years). The crowd remained standing and made its warm appreciation known. All three players will be with the orchestra through the summer at Tanglewood, and Hobson Pilot will be getting a farewell tribute in the form of a work by John Williams that will open the next Symphony Hall season.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

Sir Colin Davis, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night

(repeats today and tomorrow)