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The winning dress by The School of Fashion Design student Kowoon Jeong explored the depths of emotion in Debussy’s music.
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Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Charles Dutoit

Featuring Gautier Capuçon, cellist

February 2, 2012

Last Thursday’s French-themed program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra featured a fashion show to complement the performance of Debussy’s La Mer. Project Debussy, part of an annual fashion competition based on the works of a composer, featured eleven Debussy-inspired designs by local fashion students. This Project Composer series adds a new dimension to the usual symphony-goer’s experience, as couture and music — at least classical music — is rarely explored together.

The concert opened with Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhome, Orchestra suite Op. 60, a beautiful but rather soporific piece; the more stimulating second half of the program began with Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… (An entire distant world) for cello and orchestra. The title of the piece comes from the Baudelaire poem “Le Chevelure,” and each of the five movements — Énigme, Regard, Houles, Miroirs, Hymne — are inspired by lines from other Baudelaire poems. Dutilleux’s poetic style, along with French cellist Gautier Capuçon’s own quiet intensity, made for a captivating, subtly rousing performance. The extremely virtuosic cello solo featured haunting melodies punctuated by sharp staccatos, almost grinding chords, and frequent glissandi. Capuçon, for his part, was so deeply immersed in the music that his conversation with his cello and with the rest of the orchestra gave the audience an otherworldly and surprisingly visceral experience of the music. One could almost feel the touch of the notes with every movement of his head and every breath he took, and the ambiguity of the ending — a single, fluttering note dying away — only added to the alluring aura of the piece. I found myself holding my breath.

The last piece of the night was Debussy’s La Mer, three symphonic sketches including “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” “Play of the Waves,” and “Dialogue of the Wind and Sea.” Debussy’s inspiration was primarily from art, probably Turner’s paintings of the sea and definitely Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige; this is apparent even in the texture of the piece. La Mer, opening with Debussy’s characteristic pentatonic scales, is as richly layered and colorful as the ocean itself, with both its playfulness and its power. The undulating exchanges between the string sections mimic waves while the winds, floating on top, add a refreshing breeze to the menacing undertones of the low strings and timpani.

What makes Debussy so special is that he managed to create music that is modern but still beautiful in a more classical sense. In the fashion show that followed the concert, designers presented their own unique takes on Debussy’s aesthetic. The dress designs ranged from full-length evening gowns to shorter creations with theatrical flair. One dress, by Janfrevic Lujares, managed to straddle the zone between the striking and the elegant with a brilliantly teal-colored dress with floral textured fabric on the skirt. The winning design as chosen by the judges, by Kowoon Jeong, celebrated the darker undertones in Debussy’s work with a purple and black embellished dress. The people’s choice winner was Teresa Calabro, whose dark blue evening gown featured a satin skirt covered with handmade flowers. Most of the other designs were not particularly avant-garde, nor were they necessarily tasteful or well-constructed. Despite the shortcomings in dress design, however, the unexpected alliance within the arts as presented by Project Debussy was a thought-provoking one that both challenged and widened more traditional views of classical music.