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MUSIC REVIEW

Morlot, BSO premiere Thomas work

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 17, 2009

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Reprinted from late editions of yesterday’s Globe.

It was a homecoming of sorts Thursday night in Symphony Hall as the BSO’s former assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot returned to lead the orchestra for the first time since concluding his three-year appointment in 2007. In the intervening years, Morlot’s career has flourished, and these days he makes guest appearances with many top-tier orchestras in this country and abroad.

It is not difficult to see why: From the podium he exudes a crisp incisive musicality and a vibrant energy without resorting to theatrics. He can also put together a distinctive program, at least judging from Thursday night’s thoughtful grouping of Martinu’s “Frescoes of Piero Della Francesca’’ with Stravinsky’s “Capriccio’’ and Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy “Francesca da Rimini.’’

In addition to those works, the BSO entrusted Morlot Thursday night with the American premiere of a piece by Augusta Read Thomas, “Helios Choros II (Sun God Dancers),’’ co-commissioned with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The work is conceived to be freestanding, but it also serves as the central movement of a much larger piece Thomas is cobbling together with commissions from two additional orchestras. Her hope is that one day it will be taken up by a ballet company. Until then, the dancers for this bright, vivid, compelling music are strictly imaginary.

Thomas’s approach often weds a preference for rugged complexity with a keen ear for the sensuality of sound. So too “Helios Choros II’’ is very densely scored for a large orchestra with multiple layers of near constant activity - short sunken fanfares, fast instrumental relays, jagged violin solos, a pizzicato echo chamber - and yet a sense of rhetorical coherence nonetheless emerges.

The music holds the ear but does not overwhelm it. Morlot and the orchestra gave the work a vibrant first reading Thursday night, responsive to its challenging rhythmic demands as well as to its fractured lyricism.

Pianist Peter Serkin was the impressive soloist for the “Capriccio,’’ and his account was very smart, jaunty, and richly characterized.

The rarely heard Martinu work was also a pleasure, especially in its warmly surging string writing. Morlot led “Francesca da Rimini’’ by memory, and his reading seemed to grow more spacious and effective as the work progressed. In the end, he coaxed some ardent and intensely colorful playing from the orchestra. William Hudgins deserves special mention for his uncommonly lovely clarinet solo.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Ludovic Morlot, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats today)

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