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MUSIC REVIEW

BSO celebrates birthdays, Debussy

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink led flutist Sir James Galway with the BSO last night. The performance honored Haitink's 80th birthday and Galway's 70th. The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink led flutist Sir James Galway with the BSO last night. The performance honored Haitink's 80th birthday and Galway's 70th. (Michael J. Lutch)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink is back on the podium this week. The conductor turned 80 in March, an occasion the orchestra is officially celebrating with these concerts. Last night in Symphony Hall, a stool on the podium, used only during breaks, seemed the one concession to Haitink’s ninth decade; the conductor generally looked vital and as poised as ever in a performance of music by Debussy, Ibert, and Brahms.

It was Debussy’s “Nocturnes’’ that began the program and, it turned out, contained some of the evening’s most rewarding music-making. The opening “Nuages’’ (“Clouds’’) is a beautiful essay in color and atmosphere, delivered here by Haitink and the orchestra with superb control and nuance. The muted strings produced a kind of drifting sonic mist, the woodwind shading was elegant and understated, and Robert Sheena’s English horn solo lent a noted glow to this orchestral skyscape.

In the second movement, “Fetes’’ (“Festivals’’), some virtuosically quiet trumpet playing helped create the desired illusion of revelers approaching from the distance, and in “Sirenes’’ (“Sirens’’) the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang alluringly off-stage, pulling at least one man briefly out of his seat in the front row to investigate where this seductive sound was coming from.

Haitink’s birthday wasn’t the only one noted last night. The flutist Sir James Galway’s 70th was also recognized, after a lavish musical celebration this summer at Tanglewood. Galway is back as the soloist in Ibert’s Flute Concerto, a work written for Marcel Moyse, with whom Galway studied. It’s a piece whose outer movements in particular offer many opportunities for virtuoso display, and Galway worked hard, earning a warm ovation.

After intermission came Brahms’s First Symphony. Haitink presided over this spacious, well-paced reading with his signature mellow authority and graceful economy of gesture. A few wiggles of his left hand seemed like shorthand for a constellation of qualities he sought, and received, in the famous C-major tune of the final movement. Earlier on, a solo by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe had all the autumnal warmth you could ask for.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Bernard Haitink, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night

(repeats today and tomorrow)

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