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Music Review

BSO returns to familiar ground

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 127th season Thursday night in Symphony Hall with a splashy all-Ravel program led by music director James Levine. It was the orchestra's first concert since returning from a whirlwind European tour a few weeks ago, and it was good to hear the group back on its home turf. The players sounded well-rested and fresh, and so it was a shame that the program itself did not give the same impression.

Orchestras everywhere tend to lean heavily on traditional fare for opening nights; after all, the argument runs, ticket prices are high, concerts are short thanks to gala dinners, and there are many patrons to please. Even so, it was hard not to be struck with a sense of déjà vu Thursday night, since half of the program consisted of music the orchestra had recently performed. Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (with a different soloist) was played at Tanglewood in August. So was the Second Suite from "Daphnis et Chloé," which was itself a repeat from a set of three Symphony Hall concerts in March. Even if something as exciting as a world premiere is not feasible for opening night, for reasons I've never quite understood, one might legitimately expect at least a fresh slate of standard repertoire.

That said, the chosen works were mostly executed with Levine's and the BSO's typically high standards. "Alborada del Gracioso," an orchestration of a brief piano piece written in 1905, made for a colorful curtain-raiser, set off by tightly coiled brass riffs and the shapely bassoon solos of Richard Svoboda. Ravel's evocative "Shéhérazade" came next, with the estimable Susan Graham as the vocal soloist.

Graham's trademark warmth and tonal beauty were in full effect, though when she pulled in for quieter phrases she was nearly covered by the orchestra a bit too often. French repertoire is this singer's strong suit, as she demonstrated last season in a marvelous Jordan Hall recital. But Thursday she seemed less sensitive to the texts, and less successful at caressing each phrase in a way that would help establish the desired sultry atmosphere. Still, there were plenty of attractive moments, and Elizabeth Rowe's graceful flute arabesques made the second song, "The Enchanted Flute," a particular pleasure.

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was a suave soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, his reading stylistically worlds apart from that of his compatriot Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed the work both at Tanglewood and in Lucerne and Berlin. Where Aimard had found sleek angular lines, Thibaudet was all soft-focus lyricism, gentle edges, and quiet pearly tone. Long stretches of the slow movement were played at an introverted whisper, and the finale was dispatched with brilliant speed and fluidity. Both were credible readings, depending on how you like your Ravel, though for what it's worth, the audience response Thursday seemed slightly muted.

The Second Suite from "Daphnis et Chloé" concluded the program and gave the orchestra a chance to dazzle with a score that, recent performances aside, has run deep in its veins for decades. The string tone was warm and rich, Rowe once again delivered lovely flute solos, and the brass turned up the heat in the final bars to exciting effect.

When the program repeats tonight, listeners will get the complete "Daphnis" score, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, instead of the Second Suite, and "Pavane for a Dead Princess" will replace "Shéhérazade."

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

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Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats in part tonight)

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